One of my US senators pelts me with email messages almost daily, all asking for campaign donations, all addressed to me using my first name. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong first name.

While I know it’s a small point and a US senator has bigger fish to fry, I have written to her staff several times with no effect and—well, call me petty, but I’m just less inclined to respond when the people asking for my money don’t bother to get my name right. The real problem, I think, is that I’ve been completely spoiled by my Member of Parliament here in England.

Humfrey Malins CBE

I first met my MP on my front doorstep. Over here, politicians talk a lot about doorsteps: “What I’m hearing on the doorstep is…”, “We’ve noticed a real difference on the doorstep”, “I was on the doorstep on Saturday, talking about these issues”, and so on. British people expect candidates for seats in Parliament to go door to door to talk to voters, which is why one afternoon in 2001 I answered the doorbell to find Humfrey Malins CBE, MP, asking for my vote. As I didn’t yet have British citizenship, I couldn’t vote for him—or for anyone else—but he didn’t seem to mind. He told me that regardless of citizenship I was his constituent and if I had any problems I could call on him. So a few years later, I did.

At the time, my eligibility to live in the UK depended upon my husband’s work visa; unlike the US, the UK allows family members of most foreign employees to work, too. The county police advertised for a researcher to write briefs for detectives, something I could do and would like to do. But I couldn’t apply, or so the police told me, because I didn’t have a national insurance number, the UK’s version of a social security number. Off I trotted to my local JobCentre Plus—that’s the current euphemism for the unemployment office—to apply for an Evidence of Identity interview.

While I had no problem proving I was who I claimed to be, they wouldn’t give me an NI number. Getting a number, they said, was the first step to claiming benefits (i.e., getting on welfare), and so they try not to give out numbers if they can help it. I might be one of those nasty foreigners who come here to weasel freebies out of the UK government.

        “But how am I supposed to get a job?”
        “You don’t need an NI number to get a job.”
        “They won’t take my application unless I’ve got an NI number.”
        “Well, then, they’re wrong. It’s illegal for an employer to reject your application because you don’t have an NI number.”
        “They ought to know what’s legal—they’re the police.”
        “The last chap in here before you was getting his NI number for the first time after having been employed for seven years. I don’t care what the police are telling you, you do NOT need an NI number to get a job.”

Back I went to the police, where I made no progress, and from there, back to JobCentre Plus.

        “Who IS eligible for an NI number, then?”
        “Bona fide job seekers.”
        “Okay, right. I’m seeking a job, so why am I not a job seeker?”
        “To be classed as a job seeker you have to apply for three different jobs and bring us the rejection letters.”
        “If employers won’t even let me apply, how’m I supposed to get rejection letters?”
        “Here’s what you do: apply to three of the major supermarket chains—Sainsburys, TESCO, whatever—they all give written rejections. That’s the easiest way to go about it.”

A bit miffed that these people thought me so unemployable I was bound to be turned down for a job stacking groceries—that was in 2005, so jobs weren’t that hard to come by—I remembered Mr Malins’s offer, and wrote to him. He and his staff looked into the problem, found the police to be in the wrong, told the police to change their policy, and the police said that they would. By then, of course, the job was gone, and I don’t think I’ll be first on the county police’s list if they have any similar openings. (The JobCentre Plus people also claimed to the MP’s staff that their representative didn’t tell me to go get rejections from supermarkets and apply for an NI number that way.)

My MP with constituents at a 'Make Poverty History' event

Saying that Mr Malins and his staff resolved the problem might give you the impression that he commands the kind of office a US Representative runs, when really he has only one full-time assistant and one half-time assistant. That’s it, except that his (unpaid) wife does some of his secretarial work. He’s got an office in the capital and an office in his constituency just like my US Representative from California—but she has a staff of 16.

Then again, her staff handles the concerns of something like 650,000 Californians, and my MP represents only 80,000 people. There are advantages to living in a small country, and one of them is personal service, even though my MP belongs to a party I can’t see myself ever backing. That’s not an issue; he also went to bat for us when we had a problem with the people who give the driving tests—less successfully, but he tried. And he also took us on a tour around the Houses of Parliament, something I’m sure I’ll post about here sooner or later.

So I’ve been spoiled by all of this extra attention from my Member of Parliament, which is a part of the UK system I find tremendously appealing. I feel that I can fight (the local equivalent of) city hall, that I’ve got friends—at least one, anyway—in high places.

On the other hand, coming to the UK from an American background means wrapping your head around such facts of government as that the House of Lords, the upper house and therefore the equivalent of the US Senate, is made up of people who have not been elected, the majority of whom have been appointed for life, but a few of whom have their seats because they inherited the privilege from their parents.

My MP poses a bit incongruously with a band at the Guildford Academy of Contemporary Music. The 'drummer' is another local MP.

As the British say, then, it’s swings and roundabouts (meaning there are advantages and disadvantages). On the whole, though, I like having an MP who has so much time for me, and who bothers to get my name right.

Oh, and I did eventually get a National Insurance number. I stopped looking for a job and hung out my shingle as a freelance editor, proofreader, and researcher, which meant I had to register as self-employed with the Inland Revenue, that is, I had to pay income tax. When I phoned up to ask for an NI number so that I could pay my taxes, the intervention of an MP was not required; they couldn’t give me a number fast enough.



Filed under Law/Politics/Government

7 responses to “My MP

  1. He’s my MP too and I was pleasantly surprised by his speedy response and follow up to my petition to him on a pharmacy issue. I am not a supporter of his party, but was very impressed by him personally. I got the impression that he took the concerns of his constituents very seriously. Shame he is standing down at th end of this parliamentary term.

    On the issue of NI numbers – I always assumed that you needed one to get a job – I am sure that’s what prospective employers always say – but I also assumed that as the spouse of a work permit holder you were automatically entitled to one. Me thinks there’s a lot of deliberate misinformation out there (conspiracy theorist that I am :-))!

  2. Betsy

    A foreign friend of mine was in a similar situation, but the resolution was much easier. She came with her husband who had the work permit, but when he fell ill she had to assume the breadwinner position. Since she didn’t hold the magic ticket, she was by law denied gainful employment (paying her taxes along the way). So she was just hired under the table. Problem solved. Hey this is California, land of the illegals. Why not?

  3. Congressional representatives are a good deal more responsive and available than senators, for obvious reasons. MPs are more like reps than like senators, because they’re pegged to population numbers. (Er – I think. I think I think. Constituencies are based on population numbers aren’t they? Or am I just making stuff up.) Anyway I’ve talked to my rep a good few times, because I’ve gone to some of his meetings.

    • No, you’re not making things up! And I don’t think I’m comparing apples and oranges. The staff comparison and the number-of-constituents comparison were between my MP and my congressional representative.

      I only mentioned the senator because I noted that my attitude had changed when I realized I truly expected her office to fix the error; I don’t think, when I was living in California, I would have expected that. I’ve become used to my elected representative going the extra mile (but then again, you could very easily argue that the comparison between my MP and my representative isn’t valid because there are cultural differences, as it sees to me that the British find it more important to address people appropriately). That was, really, just an anecdote.

      But the fact is that I do not have, in the UK, any equivalent of a senator, because those who sit in the upper house here do not have constituents (unless, I suppose, you can think of members of the Church of England as constituents of the various Lords Spiritual). The MP is it!

  4. When I worked in the States I was given a lift to the local Social Security office, showed them my visa and was issued the card within a week!

    Britain is rubbish at this kind of stuff.

    • Interesting idea–if Britain is rubbish at that kind of thing, but the British have better access to help from their elected representatives, it’s the inverse–in both ways–of the US, where (perhaps) they’re better at this sort of thing, but when it goes wrong, you are absolutely stuck. When it goes wrong in the US, there is nobody in officaldom whose job it is to straighten it out, and to fight your way through the bureaucracies of the government of a nation of almost 309,000,000 people, as an individual, is truly tough.

  5. Pingback: Election 2010 (part 1) « M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

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