Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Familiarity breeds contempt. That’s what we’re told and certainly, when voters became familiar with the expenses habits of some of their MPs in 2009, contempt erupted like a fireball and has never really died out.
But at the same time, for the same reason that I never mind having my bag searched by the police (I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I?) I’ve never seen why the vast majority of we MPs who have not fiddled expenses or engaged in wrong-doing can’t be allowed to be much more relaxed about letting the general public in to the arcane and bizarre world of Parliament.
We live in an era in which people expect to know. I am one of Tony Blair’s fiercest critics, but his instinct in introducing the Freedom of Information Act ( which he now says he regrets) was spot on in chiming with the movement of the times – ever more access through the internet and evolving digital technology: Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and so on – opening up the previously fairly impenetrable bubbles of our personal lives to a global audience.
But, as ever, Parliament has been slow to catch on. When I was first elected as an MP, and began my induction into this strange universe of SW1A, my overwhelming desire was to share my experience with the people who had put me there – my electorate.
But this was easier said than done. I initially suggested to my local BBC in Bristol that I take a hand-held camera around, and document all the bits of parliament that the public don’t get to see – those pink ribbons on the coat-hangers in our cloak-room for us to hang our swords on, for example. (And the plastic light-sabre that one MP with a sense of humour hung there.)
How naïve. I had yet to encounter the rather secretive and austere authority of the “Administration Committee”, and various rules overseen by the Serjeant at Arms. Such an expose of what democratically elected representatives get up to in the peoples’ Parliament was apparently completely out of order.
In the end, the local BBC and I managed to do an audio-diary for Radio Bristol, and other local MPs contributed too. But, unbeknownst to me, someone else with a little more experience and clout had been trying the same thing, and finally found success.
Michael Cockerell, the feared and admired political documentary maker had been chipping away to gain access to the Commons in order to document the ecosystem of this extraordinary organ of democracy. The result can be seen in the four-part series Inside the Commons, starting tomorrow on BBC2.
My perhaps unwise enthusiasm to document the Parliament that I was experiencing (I will tell you if it was unwise when the series is over…) propelled me into this series, and you can watch me preparing for a Prime Ministers’s Question and going the wrong way to the dining room tomorrow night.
And in taking part in this documentary, my enthusiasm for opening everything up to the public was put to the test. There was a large amount of trust involved. It is very easy for an editor to misrepresent, make ridiculous, and present as dodgy the most mundane of actions by an MP.
And opening oneself up to all this, for broadcast just a few months before the General Election in a marginal seat, is a bit of a gamble, to say the least. Whether or not this gamble paid off will remain to be seen. John Godfrey Saxe once said that the two things you don’t want to see being made are sausages and laws. But I think maybe things have changed. There’s less guts and gristle but, if you want to see how it really works, you could do a lot worse than tune in tomorrow.