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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 11:33 GMT
Do MPs lack dot.commons sense?

Waiting for a wired Westminster? Well don't hold your breath. But now, frustrated activists are forcing MPs to face up to the information age.

Contacting your member of Parliament requires a degree of patience increasingly rare in our wired world, even if you know who they are or the name of your constituency.

Pigeon
"The second post's arrived, minister"
Snail mail is still the order of the day since only 170 of Westminster's 659 members have e-mail addresses advertised on the spartan Houses of Parliament website.

Fewer than 90 honourable members have their own homepages and those that do might sometimes wish they'd never bothered.

Newspapers are unable to resist bashing politicians' personal homepages. Ann Widdecombe's "Widdy Web", complete with shots of the shadow home secretary stroking a pig, has particularly caught the journalistic eye.

Web wise?

This week Shipley MP Christopher Leslie came under fire when the Daily Express noticed his website had not been updated in two years.

Mr Leslie's site was built by pupils at a local school which has since closed down. "I'm waiting for another school to help create a new one. Honestly, you just can't get the staff these days."

PM Tony Blair visits a school
"Go on, build me a homepage"
Staff, indeed. Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, says the Palace of Westminster has made no provision for electronic communication.

"The level of central provision of IT is lamentably bad. Each MP is regarded as a self-employed business person, so hires their own staff and buys their own computer system."

Professor Dunleavy says there is method in this "dreadful British amateurishness".

Chamber of horrors

"Stories circulate about US senators receiving a million e-mails a week. A great number of MPs fear a similar flood of communications, so deliberately shun e-mail."

It may be the "mother" of parliaments, but Westminster lags behind the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh assembly when it comes to e-mail.

President Clinton reads a computer monitor
Inbox (1,000,032)
The websites of both devolved bodies carry e-mail addresses for every member - with an easy-to-remember common domain name and a hyperlink, which summons a message form with a single mouse click.

Professor Dunleavy says MPs need to use some straightforward filtering techniques. American politicians have re-organised to accommodate their e-mail constituents.

Screen saver

With screening procedures, standard reply forms and the "auto-routing" of queries and complaints to the relevant government body, Washington has found e-mails a rather efficient means of serving the public.

Professor Dunleavy, who recently wrote a report on e-government for the National Audit Office, says MPs should be an "agent of change", and that if they adapt to e-mail the rest of government will be forced to follow.

PM Tony Blair at an internet launch
"Subject: Euro Army. Yes, delete that one"
"There are great savings for government. Answering a letter costs 10-20 times more than answering an e-mail. Responding to a phone call costs more than 2.50, which adds up when you consider the Department of Social Security alone receives 120 million calls a year."

So what can be done to drag a reluctant parliament into the electronic age? Fax Your MP is a new independent website aiming to bring the internet constituents to the Commons by the backdoor.

The site is set up so anyone can identify their representative by entering their postcode. It then offers links to some of that MP's speeches, and gives advice on how best to enlist their help.

Users can then fire off an e-mail to their MP, explaining their problem. The site then converts the e-mail into a fax, a method of communication most politicians have embraced, and sends it directly to the MP's office.

Fax and political figures

The site, which is free to use and carries no advertising, was developed by a group of internet activists who earlier this year campaigned against the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill and were frustrated by the difficulty of contacting MPs.

Tom Loosemore, one of those behind the site, says Parliament's resistance to e-mail is a barrier to many constituents.

"There are an awful lot of people out there, with genuine problems, who find it too hard to contact their MP. Hopefully Fax Your MP will help them put requests which might otherwise go unanswered."

Fax machine
MPs called on to face the fax
So will the fax machines of Westminster go into meltdown? Mr Loosemore says every effort has been made to weed out "frivolous" e-mails to the site and ensure users really need to reach their MP.

"We encourage people to read up on when it's appropriate to contact an MP. All those guidelines are there on the site."

So if a group of private individuals can build such a comprehensive site at their own expense, why can't our elected representatives? Ask your MP.

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See also:

14 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Government 'must revamp websites'
15 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Not ok @ gov.uk
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