Data journalism combines with investigative journalism to leave an elusive MP with questions to answer

Sir Stuart Bell front page

Ding Dong ... Sir Stuart Bell has some questions to answer

What’s the best way to rate an MP’s performance on behalf of his or her constituents? The number of times they have voted in parliament is one way, as is the number of times they’ve stood up and spoken in parliament. But most MPs, when faced with such data (if not positive about them) would argue there’s much, much more to being a constituency MP than just talking in the chamber.

And they would be right, to a point. Which is why I wanted to flag up this rather excellent piece of investigative journalism from the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough, which has been doing some digging into Labour grandee and local MP Sir Stuart Bell’s performance.

Sir Stuart’s performance in the Commons chamber, according to theyworkforyou.com, is below average. But the Gazette has established that Sir Stuart hasn’t held a constituency surgery for 14 years. He is made even harder to contact by the fact he doesn’t have a constituency office.

According to the paper, his response to questions about this has been to point out that he meets with members of the public by appointment instead, and people can reach him by telephone at any time.

So reporter Neil Macfarlane set about trying to find out how easy or otherwise it was to get in contact with the MP. Over several months, the Gazette rang Sir Stuart’s Westminster office and his home number over 100 times. No-one ever answered. That’s despite claiming staffing costs of £82,896 last year. Contrast that with Teesside’s four other MPs, all of who have their phones answered at the first attempt.

The evidence of how difficult it is to hold Sir Stuart to account appears to come thick and fast. There’s a complaint from a man who tried to organise pre-election hustings, which Sir Stuart said at the last minute he couldn’t attend. The Gazette has other cases which it promises to report tomorrow.

Sir Stuart also refuses to take part in the Gazette’s weekly ‘Question Time’ column, which allows members of the public to put questions to elected members. His response when asked to take part was:

“Many thanks for your interest in our work, but your scheme is not one which commends itself to me.”

To me, this story demonstrates the power of data journalism – made more practical thanks to websites like theyworkforyou.com – when combined with solid investigative journalism. Numbers, as I’ve blogged before, can sometimes only tell half the story. In this case, the investigative leg work helps fill in the other half.

The 58 comments from readers tell us it’s a story which has caught the imagination – and perhaps it’s the first comment which hits the nail on the head:

“I think we need to look at the reason why he got the vote? Was it because they liked him, his policies and his attitude towards Middlesbrough? Or do people just blindly vote labour (or any of the major parties) rather than looking at their policy and operations?

Hopefully things will improve following these findings.

Perhaps therein lies the problem … For as long as an MP knows they have a safe seat, where’s the incentive to serve?

 

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