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'If constituents need help, they need help then and there'

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: March 14, 2014

Swansea East MP Sian James.

Comments (0) Swansea East MP Sian James talks to Post reporter Richard Youle about her decision to step down at the next general election after what has been a defining era in British politics.

SIAN James had been in the Houses of Parliament barely two hours when an usher approached her in the members' lobby and said: "Mrs James, you have a message."

The date was Monday May 9, 2005 — four days after the miner's wife from Morriston was first elected Swansea East MP.

"It was a constituent, who spent the next 45 minutes talking about their problem," said Mrs James.

She tried to explain she did not yet have any staff, to which came the reply: "Why haven't you?"

Mrs James reflected: "I learned a valuable lesson — your constituents really don't have the time to listen to excuses. If they need help, they need help then and there."

Her constituency comprises the wards of Bonymaen, Cwmbwrla, Landore, Llansamlet, Morriston, Mynyddbach, Penderry and St Thomas. Labour Party members have represented its voters since 1922.

Many will put their cross to a new Labour candidate at next year's general election after Mrs James announced she was standing down.

"I think there are ways that I can make a difference by seeking other options in Wales," said the 55-year-old. "I have not got anything in the pipeline, and I will continue to do this job to the best of my ability. Then I will have a breather."

If she was elected again next year, she was likely to be 60 when voters marked their ballots next time. This got her thinking about how she wanted to spend her latter working life.

In addition, she has the sense that Wales can do more to shape its political destiny than a decade ago.

MPs fulfil a constituency role and Westminster role, and it is clear which one Mrs James prioritises.

"I do the committee work and take up local issues, like Visteon, the Land Registry and DVLA, but the best part is that you can help people on a practical basis," she said.

"You are usually faced with a person in tears, or angry or frustrated — and going to their MP is their last threat. You have to unpick what the problem is, and be honest about what you can and cannot do.

"I have not got a magic wand, but I have got a 'golden key'. My job is to take that person to the next part of the problem and open as many doors as possible.

"I know I have made a difference to those constituents who needed an active MP. An awful lot of these things are bread and butter issues: benefits, the inequity of the 'bedroom tax', changes to the welfare system."

Mrs James said dealing with people's often tangled difficulties, plus the "ever-shrinking pots of money" and 24/7 demands of email, had made the role of an MP more challenging.

Then there was the 10-minute supermarket trip, which usually became a 45-minute expedition due to requests from the public for requests and advice.

"I have always treated my constituents with the utmost of respect," said Mrs James.

Asked how to describe her ward, she replied: "Swansea East is a typical working class constituency. It has seen a huge transformation in employment.

"A lot of people used to work in the steelworks, the docks, the railways, for Ford, and in the collieries.

"Maybe the question I have been asked most often is, 'When is manufacturing coming back, Mrs James?' I have to be honest and say, 'I don't think it is'. Or not the way I remember when I was younger.

"We have to reinvent ourselves in a service sector — with the Admirals (insurance) of this world."

She also mentioned "cutting edge" semiconductor enterprise Pure Wafer, in Swansea Vale, and credited Virgin Media for delivering the call centre jobs it pledged at Swansea Enterprise Park.

In her law-making role, Mrs James pointed to her campaign to enact the Sunbeds (Regulation) Bill as a high point, but decried the adversarial, "yah-boo" nature of Westminster politics.

The spotlight on MPs became increasingly uncomfortable in 2009 when the expenses scandal erupted, with Mrs James forced to answer an allegation that she had claimed for chocolate coins costing 59p. She said the claim was incorrect.

The expenses affair was a "hugely defining moment", she said.

"It was not very nice at all, but never once did I think it should be hidden," she said. "It had to come out.

"But the families of politicians had a tough time as well.

"The only regret is that it left people feeling very disenchanted with politicians, and I think we need to work really hard to get their trust back again."

So should MPs' salaries rise £7,600 to £74,000 next year (admittedly with pension reforms), as recommended by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?

No, replied Mrs James.

"It's a very tough world out there at the moment," she said.

"I didn't get involved in politics for the salary. I think you have to have a vocation, and I have always been interested in public service."

In other matters, Mrs James voted against an investigation into the Iraq war — launched before her time as an MP by Labour leader Tony Blair — but defied Mr Blair by voting against 90-day detention proposals.

On the Iraq war vote, she said: "To condemn the people who had to make the tough decision (on the war) was not mine to make."

On the home front, Mrs James has three office staff: one full-time and two part-time. She rented a taxpayer-funded flat in London at first, and later stayed in a hotel when working the long evenings in the capital.

She said London had never been the centre of her and her husband Martin's universe.

The couple have two grown-up children, 37 and 34, and an 11-year-old step-granddaughter.

Mrs James said: "My husband said, 'I knew I would share you with people, but I never realised how many'.

"And I have not been able to see my granddaughter in various plays and events.

"But it has been a wonderful experience for me and my family."

She urged people who wanted to make a difference to get involved in politics.

"You have got to be in it to change it," she said.

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