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The motions are tabled in my name but, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead knows, they follow extensive discussions on the subject in the Commission and the Members Estimate Committee over some time. I have also kept the Senior Salaries Review Body in touch with what is being proposed. It may provide the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and other Members with some reassurance to know that the motion does not at this stage commit the House to any particular form or level of allowance; nor does it commit the House of Commons Commission to any particular action in respect of the prepaid envelope regime, although I think it is well understood that the arrangements for that regime would take into account any new allowance. That is an important part of the package. However, the motion commits the Members Estimate Committee to working out a scheme for a communications allowance, the rules for it—taking into account the recent report to which I have just
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referred—and a proposed level. It would also indicate what the boundary between political work and parliamentary work should be, and how it should be approached in the context of the existing rules in that area.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point, but is he suggesting that the communication allowance would be additional, and that Members would continue to receive headed stationery and post-paid envelopes? There may be further rules for the regime, but would we still be able to receive free stationery and post-paid envelopes as well as the communications allowance?

Mr. Straw: As the right hon. Lady knows, at present there is no limit on prepaid stationery and envelopes. She has been party to many conversations about that, where it has been not implicit but explicit that part of any change, which is in the end a matter for the House, would be a limit on prepaid stationery and envelopes, and I hope that would meet the convenience of the House.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Would the allowance enable Members to send out a survey, with a prepaid reply, to find out the views of their constituents?

Mr. Straw: The detailed rules are to be worked out. The basic rule involves some fine judgments, as we all understand, between what is plainly partisan political work—outwith any provision of taxpayers’ money, for which we are the trustees—and expenditure in respect of our parliamentary duties. I cannot think of an occasion where I have sent out a questionnaire qua questionnaire, but there could be circumstances when I might want to do so—although not out of the blue to seek my constituents’ views about this or that issue that has appeared in the newspapers.

I shall give just one example, which will be familiar to Members on both sides of the House: a controversial planning application. Generally speaking, my view in respect of planning applications—it is a survival technique—is to pass the representations on to the council and get out my tin hat. That usually seems the most appropriate way to proceed, but sometimes we have to take a view about such matters. Sometimes the constituents who come to see us may be very vocal but do not necessarily represent the view of the whole locality. If we are to represent all our constituents, which is a fundamental part of our role as Members of Parliament for single-Member constituencies, there could be a case for finding out their views.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, almost every Committee of the House has looked into the issue of Members’ stationery, without finding a real solution. Would it not be better to resolve that problem before we venture down the path of the proposed allowance?

Mr. Straw: My judgment is that it is better to work together on the issue in a sensible way rather than to
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change the current arrangements for envelopes and stationery without dealing with the fact that some Members on both sides of the House will use the allowance to the maximum. I can absolutely guarantee that if the rules are written and the allowance is passed, not every Member will make use of it to the maximum extent, but Members on both sides of the House will use it and some will use it to the maximum extent, and quite right, too. The changes arise from the increasing demand on, and expectations of, Members of Parliament.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

Joan Ruddock: I have been a Member of the House for nearly 20 years. I have 60,000 constituents, with a huge annual turnover, and I no longer flatter myself by thinking that they know what I am doing. I cannot meet them all personally, so this year, for the first time, I sent out a parliamentary report—entirely non-political. It includes many photographs—for example, of me with members of the many ethnic minority communities in my constituency and at many other meeting places. It is a proper communication, not the same as sending something in a prepaid envelope. It is what our constituents expect in this modern age and my report was well received, but I am now deeply concerned about my budget, because I have had other unexpected expenses. We need clarification. We need a ring-fenced budget so that we can do the work that the House and our constituents expect of us.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which relates to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I suspect that the turnover on the electoral roll in his constituency is relatively low, as it is in mine, but in London and other city-centre constituencies it can be very high indeed and, in a sense, it is our democratic duty to make sure that our constituents know what we are doing.

I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East.

Martin Salter: Reading, West, I hope.

Mrs. May: The Member for Reading, East is a Conservative.

Mr. Winnick: It is safer.

Martin Salter: Not for long.

Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that it would be an absolute travesty to describe the communications allowance as a fast-track to glossy brochures? Recently published information on expenditure shows that the most active letter writers in the House are my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is in the Chamber, and the hon.
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Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)—to both of whom I gave notice that I would make this point. Neither of them is known for glossy brochures, but they are for responding to petitions from their constituents. For the hon. Member for Spelthorne, one case involved a major hospital closure and he needed to use the resources available to him to communicate to his constituents the position that he planned to take. If we are to limit the number of House of Commons prepaid envelopes available to individual Members, there must be another form of communications budget to enable the hon. Member for Spelthorne, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and all of us to carry out the job that we were sent here to do, which is to represent the views of our constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend. May I say to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire that if she is concerned about probity, so is the whole House, and one of the best ways of ensuring probity is by having ceilings on all allowances? We do not have that now, but the package that I am outlining offers a sensible way forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Weading, West—[Hon. Members: “Weading?”]—I am sorry, that was a touch of the Roy Jenkins. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) referred to the activities of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). If, for example, there were a proposal to have a third runway at London airport, he might well want to get in touch with his constituents. In those rather existential circumstances for his constituents, who could blame him, or them?

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Taking further the example of a controversial planning issue in a constituency, why does the right hon. Gentleman believe that it is the responsibility of a Member of Parliament to do an exhaustive survey of opinion at public expense, rather than the responsibility of the planning authority and local councillors? Is not the problem the fact that local councillors have had their powers emasculated in that respect? Does not the right hon. Gentleman’s example prove that this is effectively a propaganda allowance, which will add substantially to public costs?

Mr. Straw: If I may say so, with all due respect to parliamentary language, the hon. Gentleman’s last comment was nonsense. Let us leave aside the matter of the discretion of local authorities and whether it has increased or decreased over the last 50 years. I suspect that, in fact, it has increased on planning matters. Local authorities still have considerable discretion and power. If I wanted to, I could detain the House with details of the longest-running constituency case—it has been going on for seven years—that I have ever had to deal with. It involves the planning authority, and although I generally have the highest regard for colleagues in the local authority, on this particular matter, there has been a level of maladministration. It has been my duty to represent a particular family and a wider community— [Interruption.] That is not posturing; it is my duty to do so.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many local councillors do
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not have limits on their postage to communicate with constituents? On such matters as mileage and car allowances, for example, as a result of the artificial cap that we put on ourselves last year, they claim larger sums than we do.

Mr. Straw: I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point, and it is worth bearing in mind that there is good evidence that other Parliaments around the world, including Commonwealth Parliaments, are more proactive in making provision—more modest than we are proposing today—to enable their members to communicate better.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Leader of the House puts his case with his characteristic charm, but he must be aware that most Members see this communication expenses scheme as just an exercise in “save our seats” for the Labour party. Given the massive increases that we have already had in our expenses, does he not give any consideration to the fact that many of our constituents would prefer us to be more considerate of taxpayers’ money, rather than sending them a communication that they have not asked for, and will probably put straight in the bin?

Mr. Straw: If I may say so, the hon. Lady’s comment is unworthy of her, because the truth is that Members on both sides of the House use existing allowances at a level that varies a great deal. I do not have the hon. Lady’s figures in front of me, but people can fairly say that there have been some increases. I am unapologetically supportive of the increase, because of the corresponding increase in constituency case load. When I entered the House 28 years ago, the total allowance was something like £1,500, which was terrible, because we could not provide a proper service to our constituents. Before any further allowance comes into effect, there will be a further debate—if this motion is carried—on a formal motion on any proposal brought forward by the Members Estimate Committee. Now is not the only occasion for the House to consider the matter, but if the process is worked through and the allowance is agreed, we will see hon. Members of all parties making use of the allowance—there will be no particular party profile involved—according to their different expectations and the pressures on them.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con) rose—

Martin Salter rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), but then I really must make some progress.

Martin Salter: The Leader of the House will be aware that local councillors, far from being emasculated, actually have more power and more ability to communicate than do elected Members of Parliament. We have all faced controversial post office closures—in fact, we are statutory consultees on the
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closures in our constituencies—and my right hon. Friend will be aware that under current rules, we cannot write to our constituents to seek their views, as we have to wait until they present us with a protest petition before we can write back. We are not allowed to send anything unsolicited, and we are in breach of the rules if we do.

Mr. Straw: I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point, and it will be taken into account by the Members Estimate Committee when the rules are drawn up.

Mr. Maples: It would help us considerably if we had some idea of what sort of figure the right hon. Gentleman envisages. Are we talking about £5,000 or £20,000? The total amount of our allowances is a matter of great public concern, and there is a wide disparity in the total amounts spent by different hon. Members. What amount are we talking about?

Mr. Straw: It depends also on the size of the cap, which is related. The combination of the two would mean an overall cap, below the total spending of some Members on both sides of the House now. The actual amount is a matter for the Members Estimate Committee and then the House, but the figure provided to me has been about £10,000—although that is not the only figure suggested.

I now want to make some progress on the third issue—that of September sittings. In October 2002 the House voted to endorse

We sat in September in 2003 and 2004. In 2005 there was no sitting because of work on the security screen, and in 2006 there was no September sitting, by way of the inertia of the House. In the light of that mixed experience, the motion now before us gives an opportunity to take a further decision, but we are in a different position from that in 2002.

We have introduced a procedure for dealing with written questions in September, with written ministerial statements, as an added means of holding the Executive to account during the long recess. That procedure has been broadly successful and I also think that there has been a shift in sentiment since 2002 towards regarding September as a valuable period for constituency work. That has certainly been the balance of representations that I have received from both sides of the House.

The particular arrangements for September questions and statements in 2006 applied, by resolution, for this year only, but we are bringing forward proposals for a more permanent system. On the basis that the House will approve such a system, I am happy to propose the motion today.

Mr. Winnick: If I can catch the Speaker’s eye, I hope later to speak to my proposed amendment to the effect that September sittings should continue. When we talk about allowances and all the rest—I do not necessarily
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object to them—should we not also bear in mind that the overriding responsibility of a Member of Parliament is to hold the Government to account in the Chamber? Even if one can submit written questions, not sitting for about 11 weeks is unacceptable. That is why I hope that a number of hon. Members will support my amendment.

Mr. Straw: I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to put that point to the House. I supported that argument in 2002, but we must take account of our experience since then, which is that the business of the House in September has not been especially substantial. However, it is for the House, not the Government, to decide what applies in future.

Joan Ruddock: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way briefly, but I am conscious that I have already spoken for 47 minutes and that others wish to contribute.

Joan Ruddock: Since all the modernisation—not enough in my view—has occurred, the House sits for longer. There is no question of hon. Members not doing their primary duty of scrutinising and passing legislation. I voted in favour of September sittings, but today I intend to vote against them, because they do not make sense. We require of the Leader of the House—I hope that he will hold an all-party discussion on the matter—a proper review of the parliamentary year. If we divided the year differently, took breaks of a different nature at different times and did not sit in July, for the benefit of Scottish Members, who currently cannot see their families and their children during their children’s holidays, we could sit in September and reorganise the party conferences. Much work remains to be done, but it does not make sense to have September sittings of the sort that we have had.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the motion and the future work of the Modernisation Committee.

Pete Wishart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must make progress on the remaining motions, beginning with that on sub judice.

The reports from the Procedure Committee, for which we thank the previous Chairman, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the current Chairman, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), arise from concerns that the House’s existing sub judice resolution causes difficulties for coroners’ proceedings.

Although the Committee ruled out changes to the resolution, it proposed several ways in which its implementation might involve a more relaxed attitude to the exercise of the Chair’s discretion. The effect should be to mitigate the sort of problems that hon. Members faced in the past. The Committee has also proposed a new Standing Order to give more power to the Chair if the extra latitude is breached.

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