Anne Campbell offers pointers on how to get local MPs onside when your organisation

Anne Campbell offers pointers on how to get local MPs onside when your organisation
plans to restructure health services

Reconfiguring acute hospital services against the wishes of the local population can be challenging at the best of times, but if a Cabinet minister joins the campaigners NHS managers are really up against it.

This has happened in the Salford, Redditch and Airdrie and Shotts constituencies of Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and John Reid, where the cabinet ministers have all been photographed protesting about closures.

There have been repeated requests to government ministers to reign in MPs when NHS organisations are trying to carry out government policy and improve the quality of services for their local populations.

It should be understood that MPs are answerable to no-one but their voters, who elect them, and their constituency party members, who select or deselect them.

Although an MP may wish to please the leadership of the party if they are hoping for promotion, the main priority is to retain the seat. The collapse of the Labour vote in Wyre Forest in 2001, when former consultant Richard Taylor turned a 7,000 Labour majority into an independent majority of over 17,000 provides a reminder of the fate that may befall the unwary. So it is unlikely that ministers will be able to influence colleagues and it is wise not to expect too much from them.

Amazing though it may seem after a daily diet of 'NHS in meltdown' stories in the press, people do have enormous confidence in their local health services and find it hard to believe that closures or changes will make their services better. The public suspects the reconfigurations are simply to save money and does not believe the money will be ploughed back into improving services. A good, strong political leader could make a powerful case locally and so there is much to be gained by attempting to bring MPs onside.

Many trusts and health authorities have regular contact with their local MPs and a good relationship with them. Inviting MPs to open new facilities or celebrate an award or a significant achievement by staff is a good way of paving the way for the more contentious issues, particularly if there is good coverage in the local press. It is also worth setting up regular briefing meetings, as MPs prefer to hear the bad and good news stories at source rather than read it in their local newspaper.

Check out your MP's background

Before attempting to contact an MP about reconfiguration do some preparatory work. Some MPs will feel more safe and secure than others and more inclined to lead than follow public opinion.

The first question is to which political party does an MP belong. An opposition MP will have little interest in supporting an unpopular government policy and will require rather more work to bring on board. A Labour backbencher with a small majority may feel their interests are better served by supporting the campaign rather than arguing the government's case. A Labour MP with a large majority, particularly a Cabinet minister, should be prepared to support the case for reform and it is surprising that John Reid, with a 14,000-plus majority, felt unable to support reconfiguration in his own constituency.

If the local MP is a rising star on the government benches it is unlikely that he or she will wish to dash their chances of promotion by publicly opposing government policy and so is unlikely to be helpful to you.

The website details MPs' voting record and election results. It gives information on ministerial posts held and may help you decide whether the MP is likely to be helpful.

There may be other issues at stake. Hazel Blears has a majority of over 7,000, so the security of her parliamentary seat is not her primary concern. Yet, she is set to fight a selection battle shortly against neighbour Ian Stewart (majority 8,000). His seat (Eccles) and her seat (Salford) are due to become one before the next general election.

Ian is 'a hard man from Glasgow who looks the part', according to The Daily Telegraph and Ms Blears will need to build credibility with party members to convince them to select her at the next election. Trying to convince both her present and future electorate that it is the correct decision to close maternity services in Salford was always going to be difficult and it is not in her interests to do so. Hence, it is worth checking whether your target MP is about to contest a difficult reselection. Information on this can be obtained from the Boundary Commission.

If an MP is not prepared to support the reconfiguration of hospital services, it may be possible to reach a compromise. All MPs love to feel that their campaigning has achieved a result and most would be delighted if plans to close down facilities in their own constituencies were modified as a result of pressure they have exerted.

A statement to the local press, which says something like: 'Following representations from Hazel Reid MP, South Midlands SHA has decided to keep open the midwife-led maternity unit in Eccleford' would be worth a great deal to the hypothetical MP. This would probably allow intensive care facilities to be merged and moved without protest and everyone would be happy.

The more devious among us might think that this is an outcome that could be planned for from the outset. Consulting on a wider range of options than is required leaves bargaining positions open in a way that could be helpful later on in negotiations.

Keep your MP well briefed

MPs are busy people. The most useful briefing letter will be on one side of A4. The meeting which achieves the best result is likely to be 30 minutes or less, so be clear about what you want to say and what you want them to do and try to put it to them succinctly.

A meeting should always be followed with a written communication about what you discussed and what you thought you had agreed. Try to arrange to see MPs when they are in their constituencies on a Friday or in Westminster during the week, and do not overestimate what they know. It may be much less than you think.

Anne Campbell is chair of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mental Health Partnership trust and chair of the NHS Confederation mental health chairs forum. From 1992-2005 she was the Labour MP for Cambridge.