Communications Allowance

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 28th March 2007.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal 1:22 pm, 28th March 2007

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.