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Evening Gazette's 100 Phone Calls Investigation Tests MP's Availability to Local Constituents

The Midddlesbrough Evening Gazette conducted an investigation over several months to test how easy it was for constituents to contact local MP Sir Stuart Bell, who does not have a constituency office and does not hold surgeries, claiming that it made 100 phone calls to his two published phone numbers, none of which were answered. Sir Stuart has vigorously denied the newspaper’s allegations, saying his office responds to all calls and he holds personal meetings at constituents’ homes and weekly meetings on council estates every Friday.

The investigation was prompted after some readers allegedly contacted the Gazette complaining that the MP didn’t always immediately respond directly to phone calls, emails or letters. Sir Stuart has since described the staff and measures he has in place to ensure that all calls are responded to and constituency matters handled, with every case dealt with properly and thoroughly.

Using a variety of Middlesbrough landlines and mobile phone numbers, the paper said it made the phone calls during weekday office hours over May and July (during Parliamentary recess). The Gazette claimed that “no one ever answered the phone. All calls rang out to an answering machine” and the paper splashed on the story on Tuesday under the headline ‘Bell’s 100 Days of Silence’. The article added: “More than a week has passed since we offered the Middlesbrough MP the chance to provide his side of the story, but he has not responded.”

However, yesterday (Wednesday) the Gazette reported Sir Stuart’s response to the story, given in an interview to BBC Radio Tees, together with the examples which he gave of his recent work and achievements on behalf of the constituency and how he kept constituents informed of his work on behalf of the area. Sir Stuart vigorously denied the allegations, said that there were no recorded calls on his office phone numbers and that no-one had ever complained to him about contact with his constituents. He said the original Gazette story contained errors.

Sir Stuart had previously told the Gazette that he had stopped holding surgeries after being physically threatened by a constituent in 1997 and that people could contact him by telephone at any time. He also told BBC Radio Tees that he had been attacked twice in his surgery and continued to be threatened and so had found another way through “personal contact in the homes of the people” who needed to see him.

“It’s a remarkable claim,” Sir Stuart told BBC Radio Tees. “I’m a member of Parliament. We have a House of Commons switchboard that sits 24 hours a day all year long. There’s not a single recorded call from this particular person. There is no recorded call on my office numbers. We have absolutely no record of this person calling. It’s a total mystery to me. We do have answer machines because we get so many calls but every call that is made and every message that is left is responded to. We have three staff who work full-time on handling constituency matters - letters, emails, text messages, personal interviews. I meet people every Friday in Middlesbrough, I go to their homes, I’m on the council estates.”

The Trinity Mirror title had also looked at the number of times Sir Stuart had spoken and voted in Parliament and the issues which he had raised, using Hansard and www.theyworkforyou.com, although the title pointed out that the latter website itself makes clear that it should simply be used as a gateway, in addition to other ways of evaluating their MP, such as reading their website and speeches, as such data “means little in terms of an MP’s actual performance. MPs do a lot of useful things which we don’t count yet, and some which we never could” and even then “a count doesn’t measure the quality of an MP’s contribution.”

The Gazette also described the active role that Sir Stuart, who was knighted for his services to Parliament in 2004, had played in bodies overseeing the workings of Westminster and the Church of England, including his 10 years on the Commons Commission until November last year and thereafter the Ecclesiastical Committee.

The Gazette further reported the recent examples which Sir Stuart gave in the interview of how he worked “constantly in the interests” of his constituency and area including his behind the scenes work and achievements benefiting his constituency – such as the Enterprise Zone for Middlesborough and work to reduce cutbacks and their effects on the NHS, involving private discussions which would not be the subject of press releases- and fire brigade, his work with the police. He suggested that he used press releases where appropriate and that there was a newsletter that went to every house in the constituency to keep people in the area informed of what he was doing.

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