Article - Direct contact

MPs get a lot of letters and emails from their constituents these days. 

Many of them are about specific problems affecting the constituent in question; others are about specific local issues that are concerning people in a particular part of West Dorset; others yet are either the rather pointless identikit campaign emails generated in considerable quantities by national organisations that hope thereby to influence parliament or are more interesting observations from individual constituents about the state of the nation. 

But, just once in a while, an MP will get a letter or email from a constituent that doesn't fit into any of these categories -- because it isn't about an individual case or a specific problem in a particular community or even a general national issue but rather a highly particular and technical proposition about a possible improvement to some relatively arcane feature of the law. 

Occasionally, correspondence of this last kind is sent by kranks with a particular fixation of some kind. But sometimes the person writing the letter is very far from a krank, and has spotted a problem or opportunity that the whole machinery of Whitehall and Westminster has missed. 

I received just such a communication a little while ago from my constituent Councillor Gerald Duke. 

Mr Duke's idea is blissfully simple: he proposes that pension funds which hold commercial property such as high street shops with empty space above them should be allowed to let registered social landlords such as housing associations use the empty space above the commercial premises to provide more affordable housing without contravening the rules that normally prevent such pension funds from being invested in residential property. 

I am now pursuing this excellent idea with the Treasury. 

I don't know whether it will eventually be possible to persuade the Treasury and HMRC that this change can be made without any significant risk of creating a loophole through which self-administered pension schemes can be used to produce unintended tax reliefs on investments in residential property for their own use. I certainly hope so, because I can't actually see any serious likelihood of Councillor Duke's proposal being open to this kind of tax avoidance. 

But, regardless of the outcome, I think this episode illustrates very clearly the advantage of a system in which MPs have a direct link with a smallish number of constituents in a smallish patch of the country and can therefore read their own correspondence and engage directly with their constituents in a way that doesn't happen in countries where legislators represent huge numbers of people and have large staffs seperating them from their electors.