Junk mail threat scares MPs away from email

UK politicians fear that campaigners will bombard them with hundreds of emails, but the offer of a free handheld computer may tempt them online

The fear of being flooded with emails from protest groups is preventing many MPs from embracing electronic communications, an influential group of MPs has warned.

According to the House of Commons Information Select Committee, many MPs who use email are refusing to publish their email address because they are concerned about the impact on their work if campaigners began bombarding them with messages.

"Publicising an email address to the full membership of an organisation can prompt mass posting of a standard email to any one Member," said the committee in a report published last week.

"The Member and his or her staff will then have to deal with each email. A Member may decide to delete each one without reading it first; but care will need to be taken to identify and preserve mail from constituents," the committee said, adding that it is concerned that MPs and their staff will be unable to cope with this extra demand, and that email from an MP's constituents could be lost as a result.

It is thought that a significant number of MPs simply don't use email at all.

The select committee has said it will investigate email filtering software, in the hope that a system could be set up to prioritise email from an MP's constituents and weed out junk email.

"Few Members have effective systems for dealing with the host of emails which come into their offices each day; yet there are a number of solutions which Members can use to protect their systems, such as barring emails from specified senders or barring emails of more than certain length," the committee said.

One system that the committee will look into is EchoMail -- an American software product, billed as an email relationship management tool, currently being trialled in the offices of some US senators.

Email currently makes up between 10 and 20 percent of an MP's correspondence, but this figure is expected to rise -- especially once more MPs allow their constituents to email them.

Some MPs are concerned that they may not be able to access their parliamentary email when they are away from the House of Commons. A remote access service has been available for some time, letting MPs access the Westminster servers from their constituency homes, but according to some politicians this has been fraught with technical problems -- although a recent upgrade has improved its performance.

The House of Commons Information Select Committee has also considered mobile email access, and believes MPs should be equipped with their own handheld computers -- at the taxpayers' expense.

"Members may buy such equipment using their Incidental Expenses Provision. There is a case, however, for including a suitable mobile device as part of the standard set of equipment issued to Members, funded centrally," suggested the committee, adding that suitable training would be needed.

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