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By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-09-08 at 13.04.37J.Alfred Prufrock MP (Grummidge West) opened the next e-mail in his inbox.  It read as follows:

"Hey Prufrock, you old f**kbag! What are you up to while reading this, eh? Fiddling your expenses or knocking back champagne in some subsidised bar, I suppose. Well, listen to me, b*****d. What I want to know is why yet AGAIN I have to pay above the odds for my rail ticket.  I mean, do you have any idea how your constituents live? How can you defend the cost of my daily commute to Shakespeare Lacey rocketing by almost 15%? And btw tell Cameron to get his finger out of his a**e! Yrs Sergeant Fury

Prufrock pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose, and studied this message for perhaps five minutes, as if probing it for some hidden meaning.  He might have been an archaeologist poring over a fragment of Etruscan pottery.  Finally, he sighed deeply, left his inbox, opened a file marked "PRU letters", searched for "rail fares", and got the relevant letter up on-screen.


A word of explanation.  The PRU is the Parliamentary Resources Unit, as it is usually known among Conservative MPs.  It is "a non-profit making, shared service based in the Houses of
Parliament [which] provides briefing, research, correspondence and related
support to  Conservative MPs necessarily in support of their
Parliamentary duties".  Labour has an equivalent: the Parliamentary Research Service.  The PRU letter that Prufrock opened read as follows:

"Rail Fares – Pru Standard Letter – September 2012

I am extremely grateful to you for contacting me about rail fares and as you know I give your views the highest priority.

I understand your concerns about the cost of travelling by train.  Patrick McLoughlin, our brilliant new Transport Secretary, will be futhering reforms to tackle the high underlying costs of our railways with a commitment to use the savings to help fare payers and tax payers.

Last year, an independent value-for-money study of our railways by Sir Tony McNulty reported that inefficiency in the rail system inherited from the last Government costs fare payers and tax payers up to £3.5 billion each year.

As a result, Ministers, encouraged by George Osborne, our fabulous Chancellor of the Exchequer, have announced how the industry will work over the coming years to reduce this efficiency gap.  The savings will be used to reduce and then abolish above-inflation rises in average regulated fares, combined with cutting the burden on tax payers.

This roadmap for action will root out inefficiency so the Government can deliver real value-for-money and end inflation-busting fare rises once and for all.  It is unfortunate that some upward corrective action is necessary in relation to pricing, but this is sadly necessary if the legacy of debt and deficit left by Labour is to be ended.

Once again, may I say how grateful I am to you for contacting me."

After half an hour or so of head-scratching, nail-biting and tea (two cups, white: half a spoon of sugar in each), Prufrock produced the following, having printed out an amended draft as well as altering the original on screen. (He misses spelling mistakes and other errors if he doesn't have a hard copy in front of him.)

       "Dear Sergeant Fury

I am extremely grateful to you for contacting me about rail fares and as you know I give your views the highest priority.

I
understand your concerns about the cost of travelling by train.  As you
may know, Patrick McLoughlin, our brilliant new Transport Secretary, has
announced reforms to tackle the high underlying costs of our railways
with a commitment to use the savings to help fare payers and tax payers.

Last
year, an independent value-for-money study of our railways by Sir Roy
McNulty reported that inefficiency in the rail system inherited from the
last Government costs fare payers and tax payers up to £3.5 billion
each year.

As
a result, Ministers, encouraged by George Osborne, the
Chancellor of the Exchequer, have announced how the industry will work
over the coming years to reduce this efficiency gap.  The savings will
be used to reduce and then abolish above-inflation rises in average
regulated fares, combined with cutting the burden on tax payers.

This
roadmap for action will root out inefficiency so the Government can
deliver real value-for-money and end inflation-busting fare rises once
and for all.  It is unfortunate that some upward corrective action is
necessary in relation to pricing, but this is sadly necessary if the
legacy of debt and deficit left by Labour is to be ended.

Once again, may I say how grateful I am to you for contacting me.

Yours sincerely,

J.Alfred Prufrock MP"

Readers will have noted that Prufrock's sole changes were to delete the word "fabulous" before "Chancellor of the Exchequer", and to correct "Sir Tony McNulty" to "Sir Roy McNulty".  His right hand reached for the "Send" button.  His index finger hovered over it.  Then, suddenly, Prufrock paused, as memories of previous PRU letters that he'd sent swam to constituents before his eyes:

  • "…It is a pity that VAT must be levied on pasties, but some upward corrective action is
    necessary is sadly necessary if the
    legacy of debt and deficit left by Labour is to be ended…"
  • "…We all care about protecting the glorious heritage of our forests, which is why it is essential that the private sector have a bigger role in running them…"
  • "…There is no good reason why the post of Chief Coroner should not be abolished as Ken Clarke, our superlative Justice Secretary, has suggested…
  • "…Be in no doubt that the only sensible option in this case is to use a version of the Joint Strike Fighter…."
  • "…It is a shame that VAT must be levied on static caravans, but some upward corrective action is
    necessary in relation to pricing, but this is sadly necessary if the
    legacy of debt and deficit left by Labour is to be ended…"

Hmm.

Prufrock mused deeply.  Whatever letter he sent to the Department, it would take six weeks to get a reply.  And a lot can change in six weeks.  Especially with a new Secretary of State…

He deleted his draft e-mail reply, tore up the paper copy, hurled the fragments of paper high into the air, stood up, and slowly and solemnly jumped up and down on them.

Then he reached for his keyboard, and fluently tapped out the following.

Dear Sergeant Fury,

Thank you for your e-mail.  As you know, it is unfortunate that some upward corrective action is
necessary in relation to rail ticket pricing if the
legacy of debt and deficit left by Labour is to be ended.  However, you make some excellent points about the way this is being done: I take the same railway journey myself frequently while getting out and about in the constituency!  You deserve nothing less than a proper answer indeed from Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, and I am sending your e-mail to him with a covering note demanding a full reply. I hope all is well with you.

Yours sincerely,

J.Alfred Prufrock MP"

Prufrock is far from being the only MP who has become wary of being caught out by U-turns.  I suspect the number of his colleagues that stick to the PRU draft on any subject is falling.

Oh, and last: he reached again for the keyboard, hesitated, glanced again at his constituent's e-mail and his own answer, and frowned for a moment.  The corners of his mouth turned slightly upwards as he added beneath his name:

P.S: I will pass your message on to the Prime Minister when I next see him.

And then he pressed "Send".

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