I beg to move,
(1) That this House
approves the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee 2006-07 (HC 319) on a Communications Allowance, and is of the opinion that provision should be made with effect from 1st April 2007 for a Communications Allowance in accordance with paragraphs (2)—(4) below.
(2) The allowance shall be for the purpose of assisting Members with expenditure incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in communicating with the public on parliamentary business, and the scope of the allowance shall be as set out in the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee.
(3) The allowance shall be at a rate of £10,000 per year for each Member, uprated annually in line with any increase in the Retail Price Index.
(4) The detailed rules and guidance for the Allowance shall be determined and reviewed from time to time by the Members Estimate Committee.
With this we will take the motions on Notices of Questions, etc. During September, Select Committees (Reports) and Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund.
If I may, I will begin by offering congratulations to my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—on his appointment earlier today by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as Deputy Leader of the House, in place of my hon. Friend Nigel Griffiths.
I should like to deal first with the three motions that are pretty uncontentious, Nos. 4, 5 and 6. The motion on notices of questions in September makes permanent the arrangements that we agreed on an experimental basis last September for taking written questions during September. They seemed to meet the approbation of the House, so I hope that Members find the motion acceptable.
I apologise to the Leader of the House for intervening so early in his speech, but will he clarify a point in the second paragraph of the motion? It states that the
"motion to appoint tabling days and answering days... may be made by a Minister of the Crown."
I assume that means just one Minister, in fact the Leader of the House, and not that each Minister in each Department can set separate days.
It is indeed one Minister. The reason why the motion was worded in that way is that the precise days in September we need to prescribe will need to take account of such things as party conferences, but the Minister will be the Leader of the House.
Motion No. 5 relates to Select Committee report embargoes and extends the embargoed period allowed from 48 hours to 72 hours to take account of weekends, publication on a Monday or on a Tuesday after a bank holiday, and so on. I cannot believe that we will spend a lot of time on that motion.
Motion No. 6 makes provision for the appointment of a beneficiary from the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund to the trustees. Sir Graham Bright, whom many of us remember as a distinguished Member of the House, has been suggested by the Former Members Association, which does good work on behalf of former Members, and I hope that the House will accept that nomination.
I come now to the communications allowance. Last November, as the report on the communications allowance sets out in paragraph 1, the House resolved by a majority of 91 to agree the principle of instituting a communications allowance. The Members Estimate Committee was asked to bring forward more precise proposals for the House to approve, which are before us today. The Committee set out what an allowance should cover, how it should operate and a proposed level. It proposed an allowance for the purpose of assisting Members
"in the work of communicating with the public on parliamentary business"— as agreed by the House in November, with the scope described in its report and subject to rules and guidance updated from time to time by the Committee. It proposed that the allowance should begin at a level of £10,000.
The purpose of the allowance is, above all, to contribute towards public understanding of what Parliament is for and what it does—something which, as the Committee highlighted, has become a high priority. In 2004, the Modernisation Committee observed:
"It is beyond the influence of the House of Commons, let alone this Committee, to arrest international trends of declining participation and trust. However... it can do more to make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament, and it can do more to communicate its activity to the world outside."
In 2005, the Hansard Society Commission, chaired by Lord Puttnam, declared:
"Parliament should be an accessible and readily understood institution, a Parliament that relates its work to the concerns of those in the outside world... Parliament must be viewed through a far more engaged and informed public eye."
In 2006, the Power report concluded that
"it is widely felt that MPs do not engage with or listen to their constituents enough between elections".
One does not have to sign up to every one of those propositions to accept the basic message that it is important for the health of our democracy for the public to know more about what we do. A survey commissioned last year by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that although 85 per cent. of people believed that it was "extremely" or "very" important for MPs to explain the reasons for their actions, only 23 per cent. of people believed that most MPs actually do so.
Can the Leader of the House clear up a point that is troubling me? If my memory serves me correctly, the original proposals for the motion we are debating were made in the aftermath of the 2005 general election, when it was found that certain Members of Parliament had possibly abused the paid-for postal system to make mass mailings. Can he relate that to what is being proposed today and reassure the House that the motion is not a retrospective justification for that misbehaviour?
It is certainly no retrospective justification for any misbehaviour. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Committee on Standards and Privileges, chaired by his right hon. Friend who is sitting behind him—
The Committee investigated at least one complaint, possibly two, about a Member. I think that it found against the complaint and made some observations about the operation of the system in respect of paid-for envelopes. Another decision will be made in parallel with the proposal today, if the House agrees it—Mr. Speaker has already indicated that he will cap the provision of paid-for envelopes at £7,000. As I shall spell out, it will not be possible for Members to use the communications allowance—if it is approved—to purchase additional paid-for envelopes. Although this is a matter of some controversy across the parties, not least my own, I accept—and I have done from the moment that I got this job—that it is unacceptable for there to be no limit on the amount for paid-for envelopes.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a disconnect with the public and that it is important for MPs to communicate with their constituents who contact them? I have received a referendum signed by 8,500 of my constituents on Canvey Island against a major accident hazard site that is proposed for the island and which concerns them greatly. The referendum had a massive turnout of 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island, and 99.5 per cent. of the people voted against the proposed liquefied natural gas plant. That is now going to appeal. I must write to all those people to tell them what happened to their petition and what they must do next to write to the inspector to make sure that their rights are upheld. That is 8,500 people I will have to write to perhaps twice this year. How am I going to be able to do that within the allowances?
As it happens, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know his constituency, including Canvey Island, well. There are probably a higher number of hazardous sites in his constituency than in any other constituency that I can think of, certainly in the south of England. We all need to be grateful, even though we do not realise it, to the constituents of Canvey Island, because it is through those sites that such vital services are provided to the rest of the country. I have been trying to do the mental arithmetic: £7,000 should provide 21,000 or so envelopes, which would still cover his requirements. However, in addition the Members Estimate Committee makes it clear in its recommendations that, in such circumstances, he would be able to write to people who had written to him by way of a petition, and he would be able to make use of the communications allowance in so doing if he wished. Overall, it is a better and a clearer system. The problem about the paid-for envelopes was that their use just grew. There has been no proved allegation of abuse of the system, but it cannot be acceptable for any particular budget item not to have a cap on it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from a justification for high spending, the proposed financial cap of £10,000 and £7,000 represents a significant reduction in the resources available to higher spending Members, if one relates the figures back to the Members' allowance table for 2005-06, where some of our colleagues managed to exceed £30,000?
Higher spending Members.
I should say to Bob Spink that the great advantage of interventions—some would say the only advantage—is that one can get the truth from the officials' Box in answer to a previous intervention while one is listening to the next one. The accurate answer to his question is that he could both use the communications allowance and top that up from the incidental expenses provision and, I am told, to a degree from staffing virement. So, he will be all right. I care about his constituents.
Bromsgrove—a fine place.
The communications allowance will assist Members with making the idea of Parliament and the work of its Members better understood. The Committee explains that the allowance would cover costs for Members of
"engaging proactively with their constituents through a variety of media."
The Committee continues:
"It could be used for the production of unsolicited communications...to help Members inform their constituents about what they have been doing and to consult them on key issues" of importance to them locally. In better facilitating lines of communication between MPs and the public, it is important that the allowance is set up in a way that means that it does not become a propaganda tool used to entrench the position of incumbents. I know that Mrs. May, the shadow Leader of the House, is concerned about that.
While we are on the issue of incumbency, I will just say, because I am sure that we will hear a bit more about this matter—it is at the heart of any argument between us and the Opposition on this matter—it is a simple arithmetical fact that, irrespective of party, the Government party will have more incumbents than the Opposition party. However, as the right hon. Lady knows as a member of the Members Estimate Committee, we have worked hard to ensure that the measure is not there to entrench the position of incumbents. In anticipation of her making any partisan point, which I am sure she will not, I would also say that I do not remember concern about incumbency ever passing the lips of any Conservative Member of Parliament when they were sitting on the Government Benches for 18 years.
What I do remember in those 18 years is how often we in the Opposition pleaded for more Short money. All our applications for Short money were turned down. So if the right hon. Lady thinks that she is hard done by as a member of the shadow Cabinet, she should have tried being in the shadow Cabinet for the 10 years that I was there, between 1987 and 1997. I record—I am sure that she will wish to bring this out—the extraordinary selfless generosity of this Government in not doubling, not trebling, but almost quadrupling the amount of Short money from £1.6 million in 1997 to £6.3 million in 2006.
I accept that, but that is neutral as between the parties, unlike the Short money. I am not complaining about the Short money.
I notice that my generosity has been such that my hon. Friend is suggesting that I should resign.
Yes, I am sure that there is an even greater role for my right hon. Friend in the months to come.
In the spirit of sheer partisanship, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that the other thing that happened in the 18 years under the Conservative party was a ballooning in the budget for the Central Office of Information, to the extent that every council tax payer and every ratepayer in my town and across the country had a delightful little leaflet explaining the advantages—
On the subject of the sums that taxpayers will have to pay, the Leader of the House may remember that when we debated the issue on
"the proposed allowance could be an additional £6 million of taxpayers' money".
His response was:
"I do not believe for a second that the net cost will be as the hon. Lady describes." —[ Hansard, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 312.]
However, we find in the booklet that has been produced by the Members Estimate Committee that
"it is estimated that the total annual cost of the Communications Allowance would be about £6 million."
When the House voted on the matter last time, it was under the impression that the cost would be less. What is his opinion of that figure? It obviously was not too difficult to work out. It is a huge amount of taxpayers' money and, in my view, it is not warranted.
The maximum gross cost is easy, arithmetically, to work out: it is 650 times £10,000. We can all do that sum, can we not? What I was disputing was the idea that people would spend up to the maximum. That is not the case for other allowances. I understand that, in general, other allowances are spent at the level of about 90 per cent.—I have just had semaphore confirmation of that from the Box. It also needs to be borne in mind that an estimate—these are only estimates; time will tell whether they are correct—has been made of a possible saving of £400,000 in respect of those who currently draw allowances above the £7,000 limit. Even if the cost were to be at the £6 million level, I happen to think that it would be money well spent. I quote in my support Mr. Pelling—a Conservative Member—who said in the debate on
"It is too easy to dismiss the proposed allowance as extra money for Members of Parliament, when it is actually an initiative that would put a cap on irresponsible behaviour."—[ Hansard, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 381.]
I believe that.
I would like to refer to the Leader of the House's previous answer. Although Members have not been found guilty of misusing their allowances, some have had to reimburse the Fees Office for envelopes that were used mistakenly. Why has the right hon. Gentleman chosen the amounts of £7,000 and £10,000 for these allowances? Were the figures pulled out of a hat?
And I should know that after a few months in this place. I will seek further elucidation from my deputy.
Let me answer the question asked by Miss Kirkbride. I am not aware of any circumstances in which Members have been required to return envelopes, although that does not mean that they do not exist.
In the end, the setting of the allowance was a matter of judgment. We judged that the sum was relatively modest and reasonable. The decision on advising Mr. Speaker—this is his decision, not ours—on the maximum that could be spent on paid-for envelopes was taken using the judgment that the amount would cover the majority of Members. That amount is the point at which the normal bell curve distribution starts getting very skewed. The mean expenditure is £4,500 to £5,000, so the amount would cover most Members' activities.
This is a new allowance. I was not aware that we were required to await the judgment of the SSRB in respect of new allowances. I have written and given evidence to the board about the fact of the allowance, which is my responsibility. I think that this is an appropriate way of doing things. I am not sure that the SSRB would have been in a better position to make a judgment. I happen to believe that it is important—I hope that he agrees, as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee—that we put a cap on the paid-for envelopes.
I congratulate Paddy Tipping on his appointment. Some of us remember that in an earlier incarnation, under the tutelage of Margaret Beckett, his mellifluous tones had a soothing impact on the House in all sorts of difficult circumstances.
On the use of the allowance, will the Leader of the House clarify the position on the content that broadly would and would not be permissible? Paragraph 10 on page 4 of the Members Estimate Committee's report, which is on the scope of the allowance, states on the one hand that unsolicited mailing may be undertaken, but on the other it cites the caveat that the material should not promote one party or denigrate another. What if Members of one party, conscious of controversy surrounding a particular policy, were to seek to craft letters to go out to their constituents, perhaps en masse, that made no reference to another political party or its position, but were simply an attempt to trumpet the merits of that policy? Could the allowance be used and potentially abused for that purpose?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose ingenuity goes before him, will excuse me if I do not offer arbitration on specific examples. I think that the rules are fairly clear. Although the line between what is parliamentary and what is political is a fine one, it is pretty clear in practice—everyone understands the difference. I will come on to describe what the allowance is for and what it is not for.
As I understand it, £7,000 of the allowance may be spent on stationery and pre-paid envelopes, which will leave about £3,000 for other things such as websites—[Hon. Members: "No."] If I am wrong, I am sure that I will be corrected. Will the Leader of the House examine the situation at election time regarding websites that are funded by what is essentially taxpayers' money?
An important aspect of what we are doing is tightening the arrangements for websites quite considerably.
Yes, and then I am going to provide information to the House—not that I have been failing to do so up to now.
Of course, it is information that I require. Let me bring the Leader of the House back to the answer that he gave to Bob Spink. When the Leader was talking about spending more than the £7,000 limit on pre-paid envelopes, I thought that I heard him say, with nods of approbation from others who might or might not be in the Chamber, that other allowances could be used to increase the spending on pre-paid envelopes beyond £7,000, which would make the limit a nonsense. As I understand it, paragraph 19 of the Members Estimate Committee's report clearly forbids the issue of pre-paid envelopes beyond the £7,000 limit. Is that correct?
The hon. Gentleman is correct—he says what I hope that I said. It will be possible for Members to use the allowance to pay for the postage of communications above and beyond the £7,000 for pre-paid envelopes, but it will not be possible to use any other allowance to pay for additional envelopes over the £7,000 limit.
We were advised that if we wanted the staff to have effective control, we would have to set the limit at £7,000—full stop. If the system does not work properly, I am sure that the House will be able to review it in due course.
Allow me to give the House further information, which, after communing through the ether, has now arrived—this shows the power of prayer to those who dispute it. A few hon. Members have been asked to repay costs for pre-paid envelopes to the Serjeant, usually because of a misunderstanding about the rules. The sums are usually small: the cost of a few hundred envelopes.
I am reminded that I wrote to the SSRB in advance of discussions on the allowance. It gave its blessing and said that it would return to the matter in its evidence when the triennial review is published in the summer.
This is a relatively short debate, but I have already been speaking for 24 minutes—I have been taking interventions for 22 minutes and speaking for a couple—so I will canter through what the allowance is not for and what it is for. It is not for party political advocacy or for Members to undermine the reputation of others. It is not to give incumbents an advantage over challengers. Accordingly, the report states that the allowance would not be used for fundraising, encouraging people to join a party, campaigning for or against a candidate, or advancing arguments to promote a particular political party or organisation. As I have said, the boundaries between parliamentary and party political work can be difficult to draw, but we all understand where they lie. The Department of Finance and Administration and the Fees Office are accustomed to handling the distinction in respect of constituency reports and newsletters, which are sent out by Members on both sides of the House and are a useful initiative.
All members of the MEC who have considered the matter know that there are occasions when Members on both sides of the House make mistakes. That is especially a danger in respect of the ever-changing world of websites, in which the rules have not kept pace with developments. The MEC saw evidence of websites of Members of all three major parties that were not in accordance with the current rules. If those websites had been submitted as a hard-copy draft of an annual report, they would never have got past the Department of Finance and Administration. In fact, I do not think that anyone would have had the cheek to put them forward. However, the websites were in place and using public money for purposes other than parliamentary purposes.
Websites that are funded from the communications allowance should be used only for parliamentary purposes. To ensure that there is much better control, we have decided to make the rules clear and to say that it will not be acceptable for Members to allow publicly funded web pages to be contained in another domain or website, and vice versa. Members will have a parliamentary website, and they may have separate websites if they wish to fund them from other sources. Parliamentary websites will close down when Parliament is dissolved after a general election is called.
A website must comply with the same rules on the content of material as any other publication, and it must contain on the home page a statement that it is funded from parliamentary allowances. Any links to other sites must make it clear electronically that the reader is leaving the parliamentary-funded website. However, websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated and it is important that the MEC should have asked the DFA to monitor website content so that the MEC can be assured that the allowances are being used for the stated purposes.
As I have said, we have proposed a level of £10,000 per Member, and we think that that is reasonable. It will go hand in hand with the establishment of a cap on envelopes. Most—including me—spend an average of between £4,500 and £5,000. Most Members fall on the normal distribution curve, spending between £2,500 and £7,000, but some were spending considerably more. That will now end. The estimated take-up is about 90 per cent.
I may do. To make the reverse of the incumbent's point, I am lucky enough to represent a single town and to have served it for a long time—I am now in my 28th year. It has an evening paper that circulates in only five constituencies, and the BBC has wisely sited Radio Lancashire's headquarters in Blackburn rather than any other town in Lancashire. All that makes communication with constituents easier. Serving a single town makes it much easier for me to hold open-air meetings, as I still do, in the centre of town and to hold residents' meetings around the town—
That is true. If I represented a series of villages, communication would be more difficult. I have, for the first time ever, sent round an annual report, approved in every particular of course by the Fees Office, and it seems to have been well received. People have been interested to learn what I have been doing and how to contact me at my surgeries. Rather than increasing my incumbency support, it has just led to a much higher demand on my staff in terms of my surgeries.
The administration of the allowance will be run by the Fees Office and draft rules have been set out in the booklet. They will be revised from time to time.
Although the proposal is advantageous to me, as to all of us, I have the most profound reservations about it. It will be an exercise in shameless self-promotion. It will be used to tell people how wonderful we are, and that will be paid for by our constituents. It is a worthy objective, but I caution my right hon. Friend that it may do more harm than good.
I very rarely disagree with my hon. Friend, but I disagree profoundly with what he has just said. I do not happen to think that the annual report that I sent out for the first time was in the category that he describes, nor is the work that the hon. Member for Castle Point described. He said that he had received a petition from some 8,000 of his constituents expressing concern about the siting of a liquid petroleum gas terminal on Canvey Island. My hon. Friend may not know Canvey Island, but I do, and it already has many similar sites. Responding to that is not shameless self-promotion; it is doing a Member's job. I resist my hon. Friend's suggestion, which is not worthy of him.
Rather than the proposal being advantageous to Members, does the Leader of the House agree that our constituents might find it advantageous to them for us to tell them what is going on, keep them involved and give them another means of contact with us? Like me, he will know no Members who would knowingly abuse the system. It will be up to Members to use the system with good will. We are all honourable Members and we will all do that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The House will credit me with spending 18 years in opposition without complaining about that fact, except within my party, or about the Government's use of incumbency. Nor did I suggest that the voting system had disadvantaged us. I thought that we were in opposition because we had failed to convince enough voters to vote for us and we needed to change our ways. We all need to be concerned about the distance between the electors and the elected, and if we are to improve that we must not just ask for support at elections, but explain to people what we are doing between elections and provide them with reassurance.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the proposals are accepted, it will not be compulsory to use the £10,000? If people do not want to use it to tell their electorate how wonderful they are, they do not have to do so. Does the proposal include a provision that the allowance will be paid only to those people who vote for it?
Now my hon. Friend asks too much. He is right to say that use of the allowance is not compulsory. Many of the allowances are not used at the moment. I use slightly less than the full office costs and staffing allowances. As for who will use it, let us wait and see, but I suspect that there will be some difference between those who vote against the allowance and those who then use it.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the British public are not stupid? It would be extremely foolish for Members to send communications that were obviously shameless self-promotion, because that would backfire on them. We must use the allowance carefully because the public will be watching. Communication should be about issues that affect them and that are important to them.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Experience has shown that the public see through those who go in for what my hon. Friend describes. In her case, when we had the tragedy of the Chinese cockle pickers—with which she dealt expertly—she did get more publicity, but it was not a question of shameless self-publicity. Rather, it was a Member of Parliament doing her job well. It was entirely fair that her constituents should have recognised that at the following election. That was democracy in action.
I have said enough about this allowance. It has been the subject of careful consideration by the MEC, on which all parties are represented, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by welcoming the Deputy Leader of the House to his new role. I am sure he was delighted, as was the Leader of the House, that the Prime Minister was able to appoint him just in time for the recess Adjournment debate tomorrow.
I wish to emphasise how important today's debate is. The world moves on, the style and manner of Government move on, and Parliament must move on, too. It is vital to our democracy that Parliament remains relevant to the outside world and remains capable of serving it well. In recent weeks, we have debated reform of the other place and party funding. Today's debate might attract less attention from outside, but how we do our job as MPs, how we hold the Government to account and how we communicate with our electorate are all issues that are crucial to the health of our democracy.
We have come a long way since Edmund Burke gave his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774. Modern Members of Parliament—perhaps I should say most modern Members of Parliament—do not see themselves just as expert deliberators, aloof from their constituents. Yes, we are deliberators and debaters, holding the Government to account, but we are also representatives of our communities. As such, we want to listen to and communicate with our constituents. I suspect that if we did not, we would enjoy the same fate as Mr. Burke, who was turfed out at the next election. Perhaps I am being unfair to Burke, because even in his address to the electors of Bristol he said that
"it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents."
I hope that even the traditionalists among us will agree that Members need to be able to communicate properly with their constituents, and I agree with the Government that if we are to do so, the rules need to change. However, we do not agree with the proposals in the communications allowance motion tabled by the Leader of the House.
I recognise that the proposals have been discussed and agreed by the Members Estimate Committee, and that the House is agreed on the need to tackle the overuse and potential abuse of stationery, as my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis said earlier. I am a member of the Committee, and I agree that the issue needs to be addressed, but, as I made clear in the previous debate on the issue and on a number of other occasions, I fear that what is proposed will not just replace the abuse of stationery supplies and bring Parliament up to date but will give an enormous taxpayer-funded advantage to sitting Members of Parliament.
The Leader of the House is effectively proposing that each hon. Member should get a £13,000 increase in expenses, because we would keep the incidental expenses provision, which will go above £20,000, we would get a new communications allowance of £10,000 and, allied to that, Mr. Speaker will cap the stationery allowance at £7,000. The total adds up to an increase of £13,000 because the £7,000 cap on stationery is £3,000 more than the average amount spent by Members, so on average, there would be an extra £13,000 of taxpayers' money for each Member.
Members talk sincerely about the need to communicate properly with our constituents, but we owe it to them to make sure that we spend their taxes wisely. Does the House really believe that all constituents think that we spend their taxes wisely? We all know what the reaction was of the press and the people when our travel expenses were published recently. It is fair to say that people's scepticism about politicians led them to think that we all had our noses in the trough. Of course, that is not true. There is a need to ensure that the budget and expenses available to MPs enable us to do our jobs effectively, and there is a responsibility on the media to be careful in their reporting of such matters, but we must be mindful of the views of those who bestow on us the privilege of sitting in Parliament.
According to the official figures, several Members already claim more than £20,000 a year in stationery and postage costs. I see that Mr. Dismore is in his place in the Chamber, and we may well hear from him later on how he spent £37,000 of taxpayers' money on stationery. When we last debated the subject, he said in Hansard on
The right hon. Lady notified me of the fact that she would refer to me today; I got her e-mail minutes before the debate, but I am grateful even for that notice, as I had not planned to speak today. I would simply say that those people who are concerned about the issue should read my comments in the previous debate, in which I quoted a large number of constituents who were grateful to receive the information that I was providing to them. It is a matter of pride to me that I have been a high spender, because it shows that I have been working as hard as I can to keep my constituents informed. I simply regret that today's decision will mean that I am less able to do that.
I am happy to apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having given him such late notice of the fact that I intended to refer to him in the debate, although as he is the Member who has spent the most on stationery, I think it unlikely that the debate would have taken place without him being referred to. I simply point out, as I did in the previous debate, that although he says that his communications with his constituents are gladly welcomed, turnout in his constituency at the election was just 58 per cent. In fact, he had a larger drop in his percentage share of the vote than Members in neighbouring constituencies did. Perhaps he might like to think about that, and reflect that his voters might like him a little bit more if they heard from him less.
As I say, I was not planning to speak in the debate. I simply repeat a point that I made in the previous debate: as far as I am concerned, the spending is not about trying to build an incumbency, or about trying to boost my personal vote somehow. It was about trying to keep constituents informed. Indeed, many of the people to whom I write are Conservative supporters and always will be. I have no prospect whatever of persuading them to vote for me, and I fully accept that, but it is part of our duty as Members to make sure that we keep in contact with all our constituents, of whatever political hue. I do not regard that as part of a vote-building operation.
I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. I refer him to the comments that the Leader of the House made in opening the debate, in which he referred to the need for Members of Parliament to encourage greater interest in what is happening in Parliament, and our communications are part of that. I suggest to the hon. Member for Hendon that the 58 per cent. turnout at the election indicates that despite all his communications, he is not able to encourage people to participate in the democratic process to the extent to which they do in some other constituencies.
The right hon. Lady is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, but when we send out annual reports, as I believe she does regularly, who actually pays for them? Secondly, will she discourage Members of her party who decide not to vote for the proposals not to exceed the £7,000 limit, if the proposal is accepted?
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, nobody will be able to exceed the £7,000 limit, because there will be a cap, and once they have reached £7,000, no more envelopes and stationery will be available to them. On annual reports, if he would like to look at a copy of my annual report, he will see that it is paid out of my incidental expenses provision. I am able to communicate with my constituents with the expenses provisions already available to Members of Parliament.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. She makes the point that the IEP enables us to communicate with constituents. Does she accept that for some Members, perhaps those in London or other areas with very high rents, the IEP is not sufficient to enable them to do that? It would perhaps be better to deal with those who suffer from that problem by providing a different rate of IEP for people with particularly high rent rates. That would be better than using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and increasing the expenses for everyone.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point: many Members who represent constituencies similar to mine, Maidenhead in the south-east, find it difficult, within the IEP, to rent premises in the constituency and have sufficient funds available to do the other things for which the IEP is intended. That is a separate issue, and the Senior Salaries Review Body might well consider it an issue for Members of Parliament that is to be dealt with in an entirely different way.
To go back to the issue of high spending by some Members of Parliament on stationery and supplies, I—and many others, I suspect—question how Members with very large claims are able to use that amount of stationery and envelopes while staying within current rules. Of course we are all aware of cases that have come before the Committee on Standards and Privileges or the Serjeant at Arms on the potential misuse of stationery and envelopes—that is, their use in ways that should not be paid for by the taxpayer. Indeed, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has said that the misuse of Members' allowances is the most common accusation relating to sleaze. He says:
"In recent times, there has perhaps been more of a focus on complaints alleging the improper use of parliamentary allowances."
I would ask the Government why, if that is already a serious problem, they support adding to it by creating the new allowance. Of course political communication is necessary, but it must be funded by the parties and not the taxpayer. Otherwise, we run the serious risk of favouring incumbent politicians at the expense of their rivals and opponents.
I would say to the Leader of the House that it is strange that he is supporting a new allowance for incumbent Members at the very time when the Government are supporting caps on local campaigning expenditure for their political opponents. Some people have described the communication allowance as a "save our seats" fund. I would not say that, because I am not sure that anything will save Labour seats if the Chancellor is its leader, but we need to make sure that taxpayers' money is not used illegitimately for electoral advantage.
Members will undoubtedly argue that in modern times politicians must communicate more with their constituents, and I certainly agree, but modern times also offer modern means of communication, and those do not necessarily involve spending great sums of taxpayers' money. Indeed, Members increasingly rely not on post and the press, but on websites, e-mail, blogs, text messages, and social networking services such as Facebook.
As I have made clear, the rules are absolutely clear on what can, and cannot, be included in annual reports. Many hon. Members ask the Department of Finance and Administration, as I do, to check the text of annual reports to ensure that we do indeed abide by the rules and do not risk going outside them.
I accept that the role of a modern Member of Parliament is very different from that of previous generations of politicians. We are all familiar with the stories of times gone by. Enoch Powell used to compose handwritten letters to constituents in the Library. [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend John Bercow is doing his Enoch Powell impersonation from a sedentary position—and very good it is too. I remember a story about a former Member who used to read his constituents' letters on the Terrace so that he could drop them into the river. I suppose that that is one way of keeping communication costs down, but I do not imagine that many Members would keep their seats for long by doing so these days.
I accept that the rules need to be adapted to reflect modern circumstances. For example, it is odd that if we receive 50 letters on a particular subject, we are supposed to write 50 different replies to meet the rules about circulars. It is sensible that that should change. If we receive letters about a planning application from 10 houses in a small street, we are not allowed to write to the other houses in the street. It is sensible that that should change. As Members, we are increasingly involved with community groups, campaigns and social action projects. It is sensible that we should be permitted to contact them without waiting for them to approach us. There are therefore good reasons for changing the rules on the expenditure of Members' allowances, but there is little justification for increasing Members' budgets. My personal preference is for Members to be given a single budget that would cover office costs, communications and stationery and for them to be free to choose how they spend it within the rules and within the budget. That would get round the rather strange situation that will arise, and to which Mr. Heath referred, in which there will be a limit on the number of prepaid envelopes that can be used by hon. Members. However, they can use other allowances to communicate through the post with their constituents and to buy postage stamps for that purpose. Indeed, they can vire money from their staffing allowance to do so. I think that there is a reason for changing the rules, but I do not think that there is a reason for introducing a new communications allowance, which will enhance the role of incumbents.
May I touch briefly on the motion on the tabling of questions during September? If Parliament does not sit in September, it is absolutely right that Members should have the opportunity to hold Ministers to account. The system for questions and statements last year was a welcome intervention, and I am sure that the House is grateful to the Leader of the House for introducing it. As with last year, this year's motion proposes that Members should table questions for three days for answer on three subsequent days. I see no reason why Members should not be able to table questions throughout the recess, and the Leader of the House should consider that. I hoped that the changes this year would extend last year's opportunities, and I am disappointed that they do not do so. As the party conference season evolves, the need for the House to have such a long recess may disappear. I would not argue that conferences themselves should disappear, although I gather that that happened to the Labour party spring conference this year, but I would certainly argue for a change of approach to them. Conferences are not a chance for a holiday, as some people have viewed them in the past, but an opportunity for healthy political debate. I have long made the case for conferences to be held at weekends and in different locations to enable that to take place.
I agree that right hon. and hon. Members certainly ought to be able to table written questions throughout the recess. Given that, on the whole, the Leader of the House, in common with a number of his predecessors, has been pretty demanding of ministerial colleagues in asserting the need for timeous replies, does my right hon. Friend agree that he should be no less exacting in his requirements of Ministers for answers to questions during the recess than he would be for answers to questions during term-time?
I entirely agree. Indeed, it is the manner in which the Leader of the House has shown himself willing both to place requirements on his ministerial colleagues and to accede to requests from the House for greater timeliness of responses from ministerial colleagues that leads me to hope that, in relation to questions in September, he will make just those points to his ministerial colleagues, and reconsider limiting the opportunities for questions during the recess to only three days.
On the first point made by John Bercow, yes, I will seek to ensure that all those questions are answered in a timely way. That was generally the case in September, but there were some exceptions, which we followed up. As I recall, particular exceptions concerned Departments that had been overwhelmed by questions. However, the Departments are there to answer questions, and that is what is expected of them.
On the hon. Gentleman's second concern, it is just a practical point, but may I make it clear to the House that I do not regard those arrangements as set in stone? They ought to be kept under regular review. My concern, in tabling the resolution as a permanent one is to ensure that there is a facility for questions in September. If we can extend it, so much the better.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that response. As I said, he is always willing to listen to the House, and I am grateful for what he said on the matter.
Holding the Government to account and how we do so and do our full job as Members of Parliament are what today's votes are about. However, like the curate's egg, the motions are good in part. As I said, the opportunity for questions in September is welcome, and we will support it. The rules regarding Members' allowances undoubtedly need updating, and I certainly support changing them, but we cannot, and will not, support a new taxpayer-funded allowance that risks becoming a spin budget for incumbent MPs.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. May. She may say that she cannot, and will not, support that allowance, but I guarantee that a large proportion of Opposition Members will not have any problems at all in claiming it, irrespective of the way in which they choose to vote today.
This morning I had the pleasure of giving evidence to the Modernisation Committee with John Bercow. We submitted a radical prospectus to assist the Leader of the House and colleagues on the Modernisation Committee in their inquiry into strengthening the role of Back Benchers. As part of that radical prospectus, we drew attention to the fact that the role of a Member of Parliament has changed out of all proportion in the past 20 or 30 years. In fact, when the Leader of the House skilfully bashed into the long grass the dreadful Roy Jenkins report on electoral reform, he drew attention to the figures—Bob Spink will be interested in this—on right hon. and hon. Members' postage. Those figures were drawn from the House of Commons Post Office itself, and are quite illuminating. In the 1950s, the average number of letters received by a Member of Parliament was in the order of 15 to 30 a week. As we all know, thanks to the delightful person who invented e-mail and thanks to all the other electronic devices, as well as a general increase in demand from constituents, that figure is now between 300 and 500 a week.
There is a resource implication for a Member of Parliament's communication role. We are communicators, certainly: one of the greatest skills that we need as Members of Parliament is to be able to communicate effectively—and, I would say, briefly. In evidence that we cited to the Modernisation Committee this morning, Professor Philip Cowley said:
"As a general point with the pull of the constituency—and the constituency is becoming more important for lots of reasons, one of which is an increasing expectation—Parliament...is to respond".
Professor Lord Norton of Louth, who is a constitutional expert—
Indeed— [ Interruption ] —and a Conservative— [ Interruption. ] I shall try to make myself heard above the heckling from the Leader of the House. Professor Lord Norton of Louth said in his evidence to the Modernisation Committee:
"If the constituency demand increases—which it has, decade by decade—if you cannot close off demand, you have to manage the supply side...There is...a resource implication."
The problem with the arguments put forward by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead is that she is talking about closing off the supply side. I have some problems with the notion of putting a limit on freepost envelopes. I accept that there were abuses of the system, but that would choke off the supply side. In a representative democracy, surely the people are the boss. They determine how busy we are by the way they relate to us.
The hon. Gentleman describes a situation that is familiar to me—the increased incoming correspondence to me as a Member of Parliament. I represent the second largest constituency in Britain in population terms. It is a very urban constituency which generates an awful lot of casework. What we are talking about here is something different. The hon. Gentleman is speaking of allowing MPs to engage in reactive communication with constituents, which I am in favour of. That is quite different from proactive communication—unsolicited communication with constituents—for which I think there is little demand.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his assiduous work in his constituency, but I draw his attention to some of the figures in the tables—for example, for 2005-06 and other tables showing the published list of expenditure on postage. Mr. Wilshire, with whom I have discussed the matter in some detail, had a petition regarding the closure of Ashford hospital, a place that I know well, with 25,000 signatures. He needs to react to that. The current system would probably stop him doing that.
The hon. Member for Castle Point was reacting to his constituents. It is fundamentally wrong to describe the allowance as solely for proactive work—solely for self-promotion. What the hon. Member for Castle Point described was doing his job effectively, not allowing constituents to put their names to a round-robin letter or petition about a matter of considerable local concern and letting that disappear into the ether. If Members of Parliament end up having to put a notice in the local paper saying, "Sorry. We've busted the allowance. We're not allowed to write to you till next year," what sort of representative democracy is that?
I commend to the hon. Gentleman the words of Mr. Mullin, who is in the Chamber, who described the proposals as "vanity publishing" when they were last discussed. Surely it is incumbent upon Martin Salter and others who support the proposals to explain to my constituents, who are puzzled, why the Government are seeking to curtail legitimate campaigning with respect to third-party contributions to campaigning between elections, yet expect taxpayers who may not have voted for that Member's party to support that expenditure—that vanity publishing—with taxpayers' money?
If the hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that the activities of the Countryside Alliance—or, in America, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—was legitimate political campaigning, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. That was about intimidation and buying support.
In this technological era, we need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to organised lobby groups. As the technology has moved on, so our response is tracked electronically and very carefully. We know of the website TheyWorkForYou, which tracks responses and how quickly we get back to constituents. More and more, we are living in a goldfish bowl as a result of technology, and the advanced communication techniques used by non-governmental organisations, interest groups, community associations and, yes, political parties. It is wrong that Members of Parliament are expected to do their job, to take the kicks and the brickbats, without the ability to respond in at least a semi-21st century manner.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the new technology, which has increased the postbag of many MPs—the electronic postbag. Does he accept that responding in this electronic age does not necessarily have the same resource implications in terms of finance, because e-mailing is next to free? There is certainly a staff implication for dealing with that resource, but it will not necessarily always require staff. In some ways it could be argued that our postage bills should be coming down.
I agree with the hon. Lady. However, many people may e-mail us for information and in response we may mail out a Select Committee report. We could mail it our in electronic form, but I find that my constituents do not thank me when I send them weighty documents that crash their systems, and still welcome old fashioned forms of communication.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He argues that, from time to time, issues arise in Members' constituencies and Members must have the ability to respond. He will know, as he has the figures in front of him, that last year I spent £3,800 on my envelopes, which was slightly less than the average, so I certainly am not a serial abuser of the system. This year I will spend considerably more because of the issue of the LNG plant on Canvey Island. I am grateful to the Government for facilitating the good service that I give to my constituents.
The hon. Gentleman is distinguishing himself in the debate through his contributions. I would go further. We should turn the question round and ask why are focusing on him, or Mr. Dismore—who, I concede, invites attention.
I would focus on hon. Members who are happy to draw a £60,000 salary and appear to have a zero against their postage budget head. I am not sure what Mr. Galloway is doing on behalf of his constituents. I am not sure what Sinn Fein Members are doing on behalf of their constituents. They seem to be happy to claim every other allowance, but can get through a whole year without writing to a single constituent.
The hon. Member for Castle Point probably will not want to agree with my next point. I have been looking at figures for Members of Parliament who are happy to claim their full salary, are happy to claim the full allowances, but also appear to have a number of outside interests. They are not necessarily giving time to this place. They are not necessarily being conscientious. How can they be, if they are serving three, five, six or, in the case of one hon. Member, 18 different paymasters?
Information dug up by a former Member a couple of years ago shows that Members of Parliament with outside interests participate in only 65 per cent. of Divisions, whereas those of us who are full-time MPs, who spend all our allowances on services for our constituents and who are diligent about what we do—the vast majority of us, in all parts of the House—participate in 91 per cent. of Divisions.
I would take more seriously some of the protestations from Opposition Members if they were prepared to examine the real scandals, such as Members of Parliament moonlighting or drawing salaries and not writing a single letter to their constituents in the course of the year. Perhaps that is what the debate should focus on.
The debate and reports of the Members Estimate Committee were informed by a previous report from the Modernisation Committee to which it was my privilege to contribute. That report, published in June 2004, was entitled "Connecting Parliament with the Public". The report was informed by a questionnaire that was sent out to all Members of the House of Commons which covered the rules relating to the use of prepaid envelopes and direct mail. What emerged was that as MPs cannot communicate with constituents on matters on which they themselves are statutory consultees, write to their constituents about matters before Parliament, or consult them about the implementation and the effect of legislation on their lives and their communities, it is important to amend the House rules.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead conceded that the definition of a circular communication was nonsense, and that individual letters to 50 people on the same issue will clearly not happen. We have all been breaking the rules. Let us be honest—we have all been at it, and I more than most, probably, because it is common sense to do so. It cannot be right that as Members of Parliament we have less ability to engage with our constituents than councillors. Councillors in my constituency and across the country are perfectly within their rights to ask the Member's secretary to mail out, at council tax payers' expense, a survey about a particular issue in their area. We cannot do that because we are not allowed to be proactive. We are restricted to replying to people who have written to us.
How have I gone about overcoming that in my constituency? I have got hold of every petition on God's earth. I have made sure that huge numbers of people have come to me. I have been incredibly busy. I have a substantial database. That gives me the ability, within the rules, to mail out on a range of issues to an awful lot of people, but it is a make-work exercise. What I like about the new rules for the communications allowance is that I will have the ability to be proactive in an appropriate manner. How can it be right for all of us as consultees on post office closures not to be able to communicate that fact through the House of Commons postage system to our electors and communities who may lose a post office? That is a subject on which Opposition Members get extremely aerated, and rightly so.
I can write to 500 people telling them what I have done on their behalf and taking up their case, but only if they contact me first, yet a local councillor can be proactive about such issues. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead is right to say that we need some changes, but they will require resources because, as the hon. Member for Castle Point observed, proactive constituency work may have a resource implication when issues blow up in the constituency at any given point.
One thing that the hon. Gentleman can never be accused of is hiding his light under a bushel; I think that he is putting in an entry for parliamentarian of the year. Does he agree that we can ameliorate the problem of using surveys simply by removing any questions on voting intentions? I understand that surveys were abused, particularly by Liberal Democrats, who brought the system into disrepute by including questions on voting intention questions, which led to its being curtailed.
The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful, as I have seen many examples of Conservative literature—I have some here—which are clearly in breach of the rules, and have sought voting intentions. Yes, the Lib Dems are famous for it, but no party is without guilt. I can honestly say that in the survey work that I have done, using the incidental expenses provision—the resources of the House of Commons— I have never sought to establish party political affiliation. In fact, some general surveys are deeply suspect. I hope that the Members Estimate Committee will take cognisance of that fact, and of the fact that they can be cross-referenced with political canvass returns.
We need the right to be proactive and to gauge opinion on issues such as hospital closures and massive planning cases, as my new best friend, the hon. Member for Castle Point has highlighted, but general requests for attitudes, which can be put into a computer system to see whether someone might be classified as a swing voter, are an abuse of the parliamentary system, and we have rules of procedure to deal with that.
The hon. Gentleman says that the need to communicate and take up issues through petitions and so forth may lead to resource increases, but that need not be the case. For example, we are both campaigning on First Great Western rail services in our constituencies. Last year I had a 2,500-signature petition on that issue, and 900 signatures came through the website. Would not it be helpful if the House accepted e-petitions, so that we could reduce the cost of responding to our constituents? I hope that the Procedure Committee will make that change.
I recommend that the right hon. Lady read the excellent evidence given today by myself and the hon. Member for Buckingham to the Modernisation Committee, which, sadly, she was not there to hear. If she had found the time to attend—she was obviously sending letters to her constituents—she would have heard us make the case for a proper petition process in this place. I also note that, according to page 5 of the report, the provisions that can be funded from the new communications allowance include e-petitions and e-communications, which represent an increasing element of our casework.
The hon. Gentleman is making a forceful and powerful speech. However, I suggest that we need not be shy about this. The amount of constituency correspondence and the number of single issue campaigns instigated within our constituencies are inexorably on the increase, and there will inevitably be a cost attached, by whatever means we respond to them. Let me remind him of what I said in evidence this morning, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead was unable to hear: despite all the people who e-mail us, we have to be conscious that there are still substantial numbers of people who will continue to write through the pigeon post, and who deserve every bit as timeous a reply as the e-mail enthusiasts. That costs, and we should say so.
I could not agree more. In fact, as a renowned Luddite myself, I take some pleasure in ensuring that I respond, usually on the basis of need but certainly in date order, to Mrs. Miggins with her spidery writing, who is every bit as entitled to my attention as someone—we all have these people among those we represent, sadly—who e-mails an hour and a half after their original e-mail, usually at 4 in the morning, to ask why we have not replied. [ Interruption. ] From Estonia, in the case of my hon. Friend Stephen Pound. He has a big personal vote there.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead protested a bit too much with her array of soundbites on what a dreadful day for democracy the approval of this allowance would be. Any abuse of parliamentary facilities is to be regretted, including the abuse of luncheon clubs and dining facilities. I understand that we are to hear more about that in weeks to come, and there could be an awful lot of humble pie eaten on the Conservative Benches.
Some Members of Parliament are very assiduous in their correspondence, and some are not. There is a massive range in the amounts of money spent on postage. Just for the record, last year I came in at £5,500—well within the average. Some Members made it up to £37,000, while many struggled to make £300 or £400. There is no golden rule as to how we do our job. Different constituencies have different demands, and different issues will bubble up. This set of proposals will limit the activities of some of the high spenders; it is not, as Opposition Members suggest, about mis-spenders. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, we do not have to be shy about this. People respond to our reaching out, and to good, non-partisan, informative communication. We should welcome our ability to compete on equal terms with those—sometimes lobby groups, certainly local councillors—who have more resources at their disposal than we do.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the website TheyWorkForYou.com and its sister site WriteToThem.com list data on the length of time that people on its system take to respond to letters? Is he further aware that of the worst 50 MPs in terms of slowness of response, most are Labour Members? Conservative Members fear that MPs of whatever party who are not assiduous will be given £10,000 to spend proactively, through their staff, on propaganda that they will send out to give a misleading sense of their activities when they are not providing the basic services for their constituents that the hon. Gentleman so passionately espouses.
I have two points in response to that rather poor intervention. First, as we have heard, TheyWorkForYou.com gives a very inaccurate representation of people's contributions to the work of Parliament. A speech is recorded with the same validity as an intervention. Many of us with relatively high postage bills are assiduous in our correspondence with Ministers when taking up issues on behalf of our constituents, and get a lot more information as a result of writing letters and presenting an argument than we ever will from a parliamentary question. One can do both, but TheyWorkForYou.com does not indicate in the slightest how assiduous a Member has been in corresponding with a Minister or a Department on a specific issue.
Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that one can drive a coach and horses through these rules, I remind him that they were drawn up on a unanimous basis by the Members Estimate Committee, with input from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. Which part of them would he change?
I was specifically referring to the sister site, which measures the length of time that Members take to respond to letters, and which gives a fairly dismal reading for a number of Members who fail to respond properly to their constituents in terms of basic written communication. The fear is that people like that will be given this £10,000 to spend, through their staff, on propaganda, which is a far cry from using it for the positive purposes that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
I wish the hon. Gentleman could make his mind up: he is either attacking hon. Members who do not use the postage, or blaming those who use the postage too much. He cannot have it both ways.
I am glad that Mr. Wilson is now in the Chamber, as it enables me to cite an annual report that has been circulating in the borough of Reading. It helps us to understand why the right hon. Member for Maidenhead was circumspect in her answer about the use of party logos. As we can see, this is a report from "Rob Wilson, MP" and it includes the Conservative party logo of Reading, East Conservatives and is funded through the incidental expenses provision—
The hon. Gentleman should be made aware that this was all checked out and run through the correct departments. Also, I have a confirmatory e-mail from the department, which confirms that the discreet use of logos is allowed on parliamentary reports. I therefore expect an immediate retraction and an apology.
I think then that we need to consider the promotion of council candidates within annual reports. I think there is an issue—[Hon. Members: "Withdraw."]—about putting out parliamentary reports during election periods. I am very happy to concede that if the hon. Gentleman has had his annual report checked out, that is fine, but I would question as a matter of principle whether it is right for MPs to circulate annual reports, featuring pictures of councillors or council candidates, during an election period. I think that that is something that the Members Estimate Committee should address. It is certainly something that I have always been very careful to avoid.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not normal convention and good manners that when a Member cites another Member in respect of contentious issues, they should give the hon. Member to whom they are referring reasonable notice of that fact before the debate?
It is always difficult to know exactly what is going to come up in a debate. Any hon. Member addressing the House is entirely responsible for the words he uses and the matters he raises. As far as I am concerned, nothing unparliamentary was said in those last remarks. I would say, however, that when we start to particularise and identify individual Members in a debate, there is a danger of going too far, so I suggest that it is better to keep our remarks more general.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I read it into the record that I was very careful not to name any hon. Members to whom I had failed to give advance notice unless they were in the Chamber The hon. Member for Reading, East came into the Chamber.
To conclude, the arguments against the communications allowance are, to say the least, confused and contradictory. The evidence that we need the tools to do the job properly is overwhelming and high spenders are going to be limited. Members would do well to reflect on the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, which said:
"Voters continue to respect their local MPs and much of the effective communication of what Parliament does, especially at the local level and in the local media, is currently through the constituency member. The level of informed, transparent and engaged democracy that any citizen of the 21(st) century has a right to expect, is, of necessity, comparatively expensive. Cut-price democracy will never represent much of a bargain."
I want to echo the words of the hon. Member for Buckingham: we should not be modest about giving ourselves the resources to do our jobs properly on behalf of our constituents.
I thank the Leader of the House for introducing this short debate and I congratulate Paddy Tipping, who it is great to see back in the post that he previously occupied. He always did a wonderful job, particularly on pre-recess debates, and it is good that he will have the opportunity to exercise his skills again so soon in his revised career. I am sure it will thrill him.
I shall deal with the provisions before us in ascending order of controversy. First is the proposal to appoint Sir Graham Bright as managing trustee of the parliamentary contributory pension fund. I do not believe that any Member will wish to disagree with that. I enter just one caveat; it does not relate to Sir Graham. I thought that we had established a little while ago as a matter of protocol—it has been happening in statutory instruments Committees when dealing with the confirmation of an appointment—that it is appropriate to circulate to those who will make the decision a curriculum vitae of the individual concerned. We should not assume that everybody knows the person. In this instance, the explanatory notes might have provided a brief resumé of Sir Graham Bright's career in order to allow Members to take an informed decision. Had that happened, I am sure that they would have come to the view that I and the rest of the House share—that he will be an admirable member of the pension fund panel.
On Select Committee reports and the period of embargo, I have no problem with changing the rules if that is the wish of Select Committees. I hope, however, that it will not become normal practice to extend the period of embargo, because that runs the risk of Select Committees falling into the same trap that Ministers so often fall into—of briefing before a report is published to an inappropriate extent. I can envisage circumstances in which a longer period of embargo may be sensible, but I hope that it will not be the norm.
On notice of questions, I wholly welcome what has been done to normalise, as it were, the ability to table questions in recess. I am still not reconciled to the long summer recess and I still want to see changes to our political calendar to enable us to sit more regularly and therefore avoid being unable for a quarter of the year to hold the Government to account. However, given that we have what we have, it is right to be able to table questions. I would like to see it extended and I believe that the Leader of the House opened the door to that.
There is a quid pro quo, and I suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that they need to exercise more care about their prolixity in putting down questions. We all know the reality: often it is not Members but their researchers who think up jolly good questions in abundance. I am not sure that having so many questions and so few answers of any profundity necessarily improves understanding of what the Government are doing. Perhaps an element of self-denying ordinance might be helpful.
I agree that a self-denying ordinance would be a good idea so that literally reams upon reams upon reams of written questions are not tabled. To some extent, it is a matter for Members to exercise a degree of control over the operation of their own offices, but as a self-confessed technophobe who is seeking late in life to overcome this condition, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that there are any technological means by which one could prevent the onward transmission of huge quantities of material, of which a Member may not be aware? In other words, are there not blocks that one could operate?
I am sure that there are, but I am wary of suggesting that that should be the case because there are sometimes very good reasons why a number of questions need to be tabled. What I am really appealing to is the good sense of Members to realise that there are limits in tabling questions, but nevertheless to welcome the opportunity to table them. Of course, when one was required to put down a question by going to the Table Office with one's hand-scrawled note and signature at the bottom, that was itself a limiting factor, which we have now moved away from.
I want to move on to the contentious issue of the communications allowance. I believe that Members on both sides of the House will have a free vote on the motion, as we always do on House matters, and I have had no indication of how my right hon. and hon. Friends intend to vote. We have to be extremely careful when we are seen by those outside to be awarding ourselves yet another allowance of substantial size without any clear indication of how it is to be spent, or of how it will be of advantage to our constituents rather than to us as incumbents in parliamentary seats.
Mrs. May and my hon. Friend Jo Swinson mentioned that the imbalance between the cost of providing office space in different constituencies was not reflected in the present allowance structure. That needs to be addressed, as it curtails the amount of money available to some hon. Members in pursuing their constituency or parliamentary work, simply because so much of their budget is pre-empted by office accommodation costs that they cannot avoid.
The proposed communications allowance represents a significant sum of money. The last time we discussed the matter, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire was absolutely right to mention the amount of £6 million; as we have heard, the Leader of the House pooh-poohed her suggestion that it would be anything like that amount. My hon. Friend has repeated today that it is to be £6 million, and the Leader of the House has invited us to do some elementary arithmetic, apparently without having noticed that £6 million is the discounted figure. It is the figure associated with the normal take-up of allowances and is therefore the figure that the taxpayer is likely to have to stump up.
The rules—and how they are applied—are key to many people's view of how the money is to be spent. There is a nagging suspicion among many of us that the proposal is partly a reaction to the massive overspend on postage by certain Members. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of how some of the figures mentioned in relation to the spending on postage by individual Members can possibly be reconciled with the present rules. Obviously it must be possible; otherwise, the Fees Office and the Serjeant at Arms would have investigated, and there would have been consequences. I find it difficult to understand, however.
Martin Salter argued persuasively for better communication with our constituents. He clearly uses the rules in order to provide such communication, and he revealed that his postage costs were about £5,500. If he can give the kind of service that he described for that figure, it is hard to understand how a multiple of six or seven times that amount can still be within the rules. I am not accusing any hon. Members of abusing the rules. I am simply saying that I cannot understand how such amounts can be reached.
While we are talking about the rules, I want to say clearly to Mr. Jackson—who has scuttled from the Chamber because he knew that I was going to bring this matter up—that I found his intervention on the hon. Member for Reading, West offensive in the extreme. The clear implication of what he said was that the Liberal Democrats were sending out surveys on voting intentions at the taxpayer's expense, but I know of no instances of that being done. It would be against the rules, and there would have been complaints if it had been done—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson has a neighbouring constituency to mine, and he has just spoken to me. Unfortunately, there has been some confusion, because some constituents have come to see him, and have only just realised that I am their Member of Parliament. So he has gone outside to address a matter that has just arisen. There is therefore a legitimate and genuine reason why he has left the Chamber, and I felt that it was important to clarify for the record that he had not just scuttled way, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said. Perhaps when the hon. Member for Peterborough returns he will make an apology, just as he demanded from others, for what the Liberal Democrats consider to be the offensive suggestion that we have repeatedly abused the present system, apparently with impunity. I know of no such instances, and if the hon. Gentleman has evidence, he should make an application to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Order. I must repeat, or at least touch on, what I said earlier. It would be sensible if we now concentrated on the main matter before the House and stopped personalising and being quite so anecdotal.
I entirely agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly try to ensure that that is the case, but I am not prepared to allow accusations to be made against my colleagues without the opportunity of a response and, I hope, of an apology from the Member concerned if he cannot substantiate the claims that he made.
I shall move on to the proposed new rules. It is unfortunate that paragraph 18 of the report by the Members Estimate Committee mentions a "separate, comprehensive booklet" without providing a draft of such a booklet, because that is key to our understanding of how the rules will work. In an intervention on the Leader of the House, I referred to the limit on pre-paid envelopes. It is part of the quid pro quo that there will be a communications allowance, but there will also be a limit on the use of pre-paid envelopes, never mind the fact that the vast majority of Members get nowhere near to the present limit—including the hon. Member for Reading, West, who is well below the limit—and that there would therefore be no change in their behaviour. That means that we shall effectively be getting £10,000 extra, with no balancing factor.
It is also extraordinary that, if we reach the new limit on pre-paid envelopes, we shall still be able to use the taxpayer's money to pay for more envelopes and stamps, to achieve exactly the same result. This is a Humpty-Dumpty situation in which the words mean exactly what we want them to mean. We are setting a limit, but it is a limit that will apply only if there happens to be a pre-paid frank on the envelope. Otherwise, we can use the taxpayer's money as much as we want within the other limits—
Yes, we can, but the proposals are supposed to provide a balance and a rationale for increasing our expenditure by a further £10,000 per Member—£6 million in all—in order to put the balance into effect.
My hon. Friend mentioned that this is apparently a cap, but in real terms for most Members it will represent an increase in what they are able to spend on stamps. The booklet says that the proposals will limit annual expenditure to a maximum of £4 million, but I am not sure who has done the maths on that. If we multiply £7,000 by 646, we get a figure of just over £4.5 million, so perhaps £4 million is a more accurate estimate of what would be spent, if we base it on people spending up to 90 per cent. of the allowance. If we were to spend £4 million as opposed to £3 million, that would represent a 33 per cent. increase in postage costs, apparently in a bid to try to clamp down on some of the worst abuses or overspends. This is just another example of additional money being put forward that the taxpayer is going to have to fund.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. I would like to make a countervailing point, however. The hon. Member for Reading, West made the perfectly proper point that certain things that are against the rules at the moment ought to be within the rules. The point was also made by Bob Spink. When we want to respond properly to petitions or large round robins, or when we want to draw the attention of our constituents to something that is likely to have a profound effect on them, we do not have the freedoms that I enjoyed, for example, when I was the member of Somerset county council for Frome, North. I could send a letter round to my constituents then, but I cannot do so now unless I pay for it myself and print it on the Reisograph. If I want to include in it a question about voting intentions—please will the hon. Member for Peterborough note this—I am perfectly entitled to do so.
Do not many Members fear that the new system will see an increase in the number of stamps used? Do not they also fear that the propaganda allowance of £10,000 will have a corrosive effect on democracy, because incumbents will have access to media that their opponents can never have, thereby further reinforcing incumbency? The Labour party is trying to force the proposal through so that further propaganda can be provided for those who are currently failing to deliver a suitable service to constituents.
The point about incumbency is a potent one. People fear that the proposal would simply reinforce incumbency. Clearly, it is a given that it reinforces incumbency, but the question is whether it should do that in order to allow Members to do their job more effectively. One's views on that will be almost entirely coloured by whether one is a Member of the House who uses the resources or a prospective candidate who does not have such access.
I reject, however, the claims made by some Conservative Members of an easy equivalence between this and the abuse of funding in party political campaigning reflected by the massive influx of funds from third parties or central offices into local constituencies, particularly marginal ones, between elections. That is wrong, and I hope that we will address that in our debates on party funding. The issue under discussion, however, has nothing to do with that. There is no equivalence at all. One can argue cogently against the provision without accepting for one moment such off-balance-sheet party funding to local parties, which is against the spirit of our election law.
The hon. Gentleman has just argued against third party funding to allow those in opposition to campaign against a sitting MP, but incumbent MPs have—to pick a number out of the air—£100,000-worth of state support to be seen to be performing their role, and their members of staff work with constituents. MPs have an enormous advantage. In comparison with the sums under discussion, the sums of money guided to target seats by other parties are minuscule. It is right and proper in a democracy that the activities of those who want to challenge incumbent MPs can be funded.
I find it difficult to understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, because I do not see any campaign funding going to hon. Members to enable them to do their job as MPs. I do not see the people who work in my office, whom he includes in his figure, as campaigning when they answer letters about the Child Support Agency or the Rural Payments Agency. I do not see the provision of that office and my nine surgeries each month as campaigning opportunities, and I hope that he does not do so either. I hope that, if he really thinks about it, he will not see the money that goes to support Members of Parliament to do their job as campaigning money. Under the rules, we are not allowed to campaign using the funds available. If this money is granted by the House, one hopes that the reputations of those Members who use it will be enhanced, although, in some instances, I suspect that that will not be the case. To that extent only, it is money used in campaigning. It cannot be used, however, for openly party political purposes.
I would have liked the draft guidance to be before the House, so that we could have a clear idea of how the rules will be applied. I would have liked clear assurances that the rules will be applied much more stringently than they are at present. I notice the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee nodding vigorously at that point, because he and I have experience of trying to police such matters in the House.
I worry about the naivety of some of the report's suggestions of items that the rules would properly allow.
No, because we have nearly reached the time limit for the debate.
I want to draw attention to one thing that is allowed, and one thing that is not allowed. According to paragraph 12 of the report, hon. Members will be able to use the communications allowance to meet the cost of "questionnaires and surveys". According to paragraph 14, however, the allowance cannot be used to meet the cost of petitions, surveys or questionnaires if they are
"associated principally with national campaigning or local elections."
It is naive to a high degree to believe that the questionnaires and surveys issued will not somehow tie in with national campaigning issues for every Member who uses the money to meet that cost. If a party is running a massive campaign on health service cuts, for example, a survey that may relate to local health service provision will nevertheless tie in with that. If we are to allow that sort of material, which is questionable, let us openly accept that within a national campaigning profile its use will be ambiguous.
Lastly, some Labour Members have suggested that any Member who votes against the allowance this evening—because they are not satisfied with the details or even the principle of it—would be hypocritical if they subsequently used any of it. That is simply nonsense, and a misreading of what the House is for. We take decisions, express our opinions and vote. Once the matter has been voted on, however, individual Members, whether they thought a proposal was a good idea or not, have a duty to their constituents to use the funds available. [Laughter.] I make the point in all seriousness. I might disagree with a lot of provisions. I sometimes vote against them and do not, if they would be to my personal advantage, take them. For instance, I voted against the pension enhancement, and refused to take it. I know that many Members voted against it and still took it. This issue, however, does not relate to my or any other Member's personal position, but to the service that will be provided to constituents. Therefore, I hope that accusations of hypocrisy will not be made against hon. Members who choose to vote against the proposal today.
Not if, as I believe, the present arrangements for allowances, with a few minor changes in the rules on how they can be used, which we have discussed, allow for appropriate communication with the electorate. The House will either accept or reject the package. Many of my hon. Friends will vote for it, and many will vote against it. That is a decision for them, as it is for each Member. We work within the allowances system that we have in order to provide the best service for our constituents. There are better ways of achieving the objective, which I share with the Leader of the House, of allowing better communication with our electorate. My personal opinion is that the proposal is not the right way. I do not encourage others to share that view, but this has been a useful debate, and I look forward to the result with interest.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Heath, and I shall refer to some of the points that he made.
I can tell Mr. Khan that some of us will have to claim under the communications allowance for activities that we are undertaking at present and which are paid for by the incidental expenses provision. Without wishing to spend any more money, we will have to claim under the communications allowance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there is no implication of hypocrisy.
I join in the chorus of approval welcoming back Mr. Tipping. At a time of preservation, conservation and recycling, it is marvellous to see him back in the post that he occupied in the 1997-2001 Parliament.
We debate these allowances for ourselves after spending four days debating the Budget, which involved very tough decisions on public expenditure for some important public services, including education and the Home Office. People outside the House will want us to make a very good case for increased public expenditure on our services, given the background of the Budget debate.
When he introduced the debate, the Leader of the House used the argument about disconnect to support the communication allowance. That argument can be stood on its head: we could argue perfectly well that it is our voting for more money for ourselves in this way that adds to, rather than solves, the problem of disconnect. One of the jobs of the House is to examine claims for increased expenditure. We are sent here to see how money extracted from constituents is spent. When we are the conduit for that increased expenditure, we need to be even more vigilant and demand an even higher standard of proof.
The motion before us is the next stage in a debate that began on
With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that is precisely the wrong way round: the SSRB ought to be keeping him in touch with what is proposed. What is the purpose of having an independent body to make recommendations about our allowances if—unilaterally, and before its report is published—we help ourselves to higher allowances? When I intervened on him, the Leader of the House said that the proposed allowance is a new one. That is true, but a lot of the activity that it subsumes is catered for already. The right hon. Gentleman would have been on much better ground if we had waited for the SSRB's recommendations and come forward with a much more robust case than the one that he presented this afternoon.
There is another reason why I believe it injudicious to proceed at this moment. As various hon. Members have noted, a fortnight ago Sir Haydn Phillips published his recommendations on party funding, with no agreement having been reached between the parties. There are a number of outstanding issues, one of which is a proposal for a new cap—one that does not exist at present—on what can be spent locally by a political party. That is of particular relevance where that local party is challenging an incumbent, and I quote what Mr. Mullin said in our earlier debate:
"Were I a candidate for Parliament running against an incumbent who was using public funds to publish and distribute what looks to most people like campaign literature, I would be mightily upset."—[ Hansard, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 350.]
At the very moment that the Government are seeking consensus with the Opposition parties on a new limit on what a prospective candidate can spend, they are also proposing to increase what the incumbent can spend without having to raise the money. The Leader of the House must realise that what is being proposed today will make it more difficult to secure the consensus on party funding that I know he wants.
I shall be brief, as I know that Jo Swinson wants to contribute to the date. On a more positive note, I welcome the decision to cap the value of pre-paid envelopes and other stationery. With an average spend of £3,500, £7,000 leaves a substantial amount of head room for the majority of MPs. I hope that we can stick at that level for some time. I assume that, as the cost of postage rises, the number of free envelopes to which we are entitled will fall.
We are told in paragraph 12 of the motion that detailed rules will follow in a new, separate and comprehensive booklet, and I welcome that. At the moment, the advice is all over the place—in the stationery catalogue, in the Green Book, in leaflets and guidance notes issued by the Serjeant at Arms Department and on that Department's intranet site. I welcome the prospect of one, comprehensive publication telling us exactly what we can and cannot do.
I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind if I say no, but he has made several interventions and I know that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire wants to speak.
If invited, the Standards and Privileges Committee stands ready to advise—as does the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—on the more detailed guidance to which the motion refers. I notice that we are not included in paragraph 12, but my Committee and the Commissioner have to interpret the rules and so would be more than happy to provide some advice on their composition.
As various hon. Members noted, there has been a steady stream of complaints that rules have been broken in respect of postage and the IEP. We have reported on four cases during this Parliament, and the Commissioner has dealt with many more. The rules lack clarity; they are complex and they overlap. In my Committee's 10th report, we noted that
"the significant differences of interpretation amongst Members as to the acceptable limits of party-related material that can properly be included in IEP funded material."
What is proposed today is a considerable relaxation of what can legitimately be funded. I hope that that will be accompanied by a firm restatement of the boundary between parliamentary and party political activity, with an assertion that the new boundary should be rigorously policed. That seems to me to be an appropriate trade-off.
Finally, I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expenditure—something that has not been mentioned much in the debate—and the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that can undermine Parliament's legitimacy. My view remains that if we are to have a communication allowance as proposed, a far stronger case for it needs to be made than we have heard so far. As no compelling case has been made to justify an increase of £6 million in public expenditure, I propose to vote against it.
I appreciate the fact that Sir George Young kept his remarks brief. I believe that someone else wishes to speak so I, too, will try to be brief.
As a Member of Parliament, I believe that communication is incredibly important. As a former marketing manager, perhaps I know more than many the benefits of good communication. Those of us who oppose the allowance do not say that ensuring that we are in touch with our constituents, reporting back and making sure that people in our constituencies are engaged in politics are not important parts of a Member of Parliament's job. Far from it. My problem is the cost that the taxpayer will incur. Through interventions, I have already expressed my disappointment that the communications allowance will cost an extra £6 million, with a perhaps an additional £1 million in increased postage costs. That means that the taxpayer must bear the brunt of an additional £7 million.
Good communication with constituents does not always have to be costly. We spoke earlier about technology and leaps forward through e-mail communication and websites, which are an especially cost-effective way of keeping in touch with people. The communications allowance can be used for websites, but my website, for which I personally pay, costs only about £15 a month. Basic technology hardly costs a huge amount these days.
Of course, local visits, which Members of Parliament often make on Fridays and the weekends are a way of communicating face to face with constituents. Dare I say it?—going back to the good old days of knocking on doors to communicate directly with individuals is perhaps one of the most potent ways of engaging people in politics. There is a role for leaflets, too. As a Liberal Democrat, I would say that. I have spent many a happy hour delivering leaflets and I shall do much more of that in the next few weeks. I enjoy doing it—it is good exercise. However, I would argue that political parties have an important role to play in funding political leaflets.
Many of us send out an annual report funded from our parliamentary expenses. However, it is not right to increase the money by £10,000 when adequate provision is already made in our incidental expenses provision. We do not need to increase that further. We should consider the cases of Members who have problems with their office rent costs, which means that they cannot use their current expenses for incidental provision, but a total blanket increase of £7 million, even for those who do not suffer the problem, is excessive. We do not need that.
Let us consider timing. The report suggests that there is a good case for combining the communications allowance with the allocation for pre-paid stationery in one allowance. However, it also states that although that appears attractive in the long term, the financial and administrative difficulties would delay unduly the introduction of the communications allowance. What is the rush? The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned the SSRB review. Why could we not let it reach a conclusion about the matter? Why do we need to rush the matter through? Some hon. Members may suggest that a forthcoming general election is a factor.
I urge hon. Members to oppose the allowance.
The debate has been interesting, notwithstanding the comments of Mr. Heath that it is fine to vote one way and then take the money regardless. Some of us will monitor that with interest. I understand his point, but I believe that there will be a slightly larger take-up if the motion is approved than the numbers going through the Lobby will suggest.
It shows that more hon. Members may think that it is right than are willing to put their heads above the parapet. If they genuinely believed that it was a bad idea, they would not take the allowance. I believe that it is right and I would not have introduced it if I did not.
Much time has been spent on the issue that Jo Swinson raised—
It being two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question accordingly agreed to.
(1) That this House approves the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee 2006-07 (HC 319) on a Communications Allowance, and is of the opinion that provision should be made with effect from 1st April 2007 for a Communications Allowance in accordance with paragraphs (2)—(4) below.
(2) The allowance shall be for the purpose of assisting Members with expenditure incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in communicating with the public on parliamentary business, and the scope of the allowance shall be as set out in the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee.
(3) The allowance shall be at a rate of £10,000 per year for each Member, uprated annually in line with any increase in the Retail Price Index.
(4) The detailed rules and guidance for the Allowance shall be determined and reviewed from time to time by the Members Estimate Committee.