If your Member of Parliament suddenly launches a personal Web site with online voting and a chat room in the next few months, then approach it with caution. The prime motivation could be to capture your email address, rather than to address your concerns.
At a meeting at Portcullis House in London on Monday night, the Hansard Society assembled three of Westminster's more Net-savvy inmates and asked them to discuss the issue of MPs' Web sites. Richard Allan, Barbara Follett and Sir George Young each have a Web page that constituents can use to contact them by email, and even read details of their recent activities. Each acknowledged that the Internet has an important role to play in the democratic process.
From some of the comments made, however, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the driving force for moving online -- when other MPs still can't even be contacted by email -- was because they detected an electoral advantage.
Sir George Young, whose Web site, www.sir-george-young.org.uk, seems to be updated regularly, warned that busy MPs must prioritise their time, and decide whether putting effort into the Internet will be repaid at the next General Election. "The question is whether working the Web will be worth 5 percent more votes for you in 2005. My view is that yes, it is worth it," Young said.
The Conservative MP added that, by encouraging constituents to email him, he had collected around 3,000 email addresses -- which will be useful when he next starts campaigning for votes.
The Hansard Society commissioned MORI to interview almost 2,000 members of the public to find what they wanted from MPs' Web sites -- and found that 39 percent of those interviewed would like to see their MPs offer an online surgery where problems could be raised.
Barbara Follett MP said she was considering starting such a chat room on her site -- www.barbara-follett.org.uk. Warning that "the expectation that an MP can enter into an online chat cannot be met", the Labour MP for Stevenage admitted that a prime motivation was that her office could collect the email addresses of constituents.
Labour MP Brian White also attended the meeting. He said that between a quarter and a third of his constituency work is now carried out online, and that he too has been collecting email addresses from his web site, www.brianwhite.org.uk. "People who sign up get regular mailings via email," White said.
Richard Allan, Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam, agreed that online chats are a good way of collecting email addresses. He believes it's important for people realise that an MP's site can direct constituents who are seeking an answer to the correct place on the Web, especially if the query is not one that an MP can answer.
Sir George Young also amused the audience with tales of the online exploits of some other MPs. On one Web site boasted a "question and answer" forum that contained no questions, while another MP's contact page warns that "this email address cannot be used to contact me."
Barbara Follett emphasised the heavy workload that MPs and their assistants cope with, pointing out that it simply might not be possible for them to handle a great many number of emails each day as well as their normal snail-mail postbag.
Richard Allan agrees that MPs can't simply embrace the Internet on top of all their existing work. "Select committees could hold an online session where they could question witnesses over the Internet. However, if they did that for one hour it would have to replace an hour of face-to-face questioning, rather than being in addition to it," he said.
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