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There is a need to ensure that Members are able to undertake their job as they are expected to in the 21st century. However, there is also a need to ensure that we are good guardians of taxpayers’ money, that we are not abusing the system, and that we are not putting in place allowances that will enable Members to do what is not part of their job. The enforcement of the rules will be important.

Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is all the difference in the world between Members responding adequately to unsolicited requests from constituents for help or our views—some Members have huge case loads that are not prompted by any effort to recruit work, including those representing inner-city seats, seats with mixed communities and seats with many asylum and immigration cases—and unsolicited party circulars that are prompted by not a single issue, but a Member’s desire to get re-elected? Such circulars should be out of the system. Parties should fund them if they want to, but the taxpayer certainly should not.

Mrs. May: Indeed, it is appropriate for parties, not individual Members, to fund some circulars, although I know that some of the circulars sent round by the Liberal Democrats in my constituency have been part-funded by Members of the European Parliament, which raises an interesting issue. However, some activities undertaken by Members to respond and deal with problems in our constituencies are over and above the job as perceived by the original stationery requirements. Those requirements assumed that Members just responded when someone wrote to them. However, we all now take up wider issues with community groups and so forth, as well as responding to individuals.

Pete Wishart: Does the right hon. Lady not think that hon. Members are deluding themselves if they think that their constituents are waiting by their letter boxes for a glossy circular from ourselves? Is this not a case of panicking about how to deal with the situation, given the difficulties that are being caused to political parties due to funding issues?

Mrs. May: I do not pretend that constituents are always waiting eagerly by their letter boxes for a glossy to come through so that they can see the latest photograph of their Member of Parliament. However, hon. Members should have a choice about how to communicate their activities properly to their constituents.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab) rose—

Mrs. May: May I make a little more progress? As I was going on to say—knowing the hon. Lady’s interests, this might have been a point that she wished to raise—there are a variety of ways in which Members may communicate with their constituents these days in addition to glossy newsletters. The use of websites and e-mail is often the best form of communication,
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especially for reaching the younger generation of voters who will not read circulars, but will access websites and blogs.

My view on the communications allowance is simple. My preference would be for a single sum with an overall limit that hon. Members would have as their budget. They could then choose how to spend the sum, albeit within certain appropriate rules, such as not allowing commercial or party political correspondence to be funded from taxpayers’ money. My worry about the proposal that we are considering—this was why I asked the Leader of the House a specific question—is that we will find ourselves in a situation in which a variety of resources will be available to Members. A communications allowance that is additional to Members’ ability to get a limited amount of stationery and post-paid envelopes is not the right way forward. I would prefer Members to be able to choose how to use a limited single budget. It might be that special dispensation would be needed for Members who experienced something such as the Lockerbie disaster in their constituency. However, in general, we should have a budget to which we have to stick, rather than various allowances on which we can draw, with the risk of abuse by Members.

Mr. Jenkin: My principal concern about the communications allowance is that it will be used to promote the image and reputation not of the House, but of individual Members of Parliament, which is an entirely different matter. The danger is that the allowance will strengthen the position of incumbents because Members could spend the money to shore themselves up and make them more difficult to challenge. There is no better example of that than the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who should be embarrassed by his postage allowance.

Mrs. May: Indeed, that concern underlies several comments made by Conservative Members. There is a fine balance to be struck. Members have a duty to inform their constituents about activities related to their job. That job does not just involve sitting in this place and passing legislation. It involves working on community issues and matters that have been raised in the constituency. However, if correspondence does not inform constituents about Members’ activities in relation to their job, it becomes party political literature, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, rather than literature that should be funded by the taxpayer.

Ms Butler: I am bemused by some of the arguments that we are hearing in relation to the communications allowance. It depends on whether we consider ourselves constituency MPs who communicate with our constituents, or Members who just sit in the House and spout Opposition arguments. Those of us who are constituency MPs communicate with our constituents as much as we can, as many times as we can. An annual report adds to that. I have found that people contacted me after receiving an annual report. As the right hon. Lady said, our job is not confined to the House. We have to communicate with our constituents. Those MPs who are not doing so should be ashamed of themselves.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Over-communication there, I think.

Mrs. May: It is up to individual Members to decide how they wish to communicate with their constituents. One does not have to be a constituency Member who communicates or a Member who participates in the House. One can be both—a Member who plays an active role in the House and who also communicates regularly with constituents. Ultimately, the decision whether that communication is appropriate is taken by the voters. They will decide at the ballot box whether they think their Member of Parliament is doing an appropriate job.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is not part of the answer to the reasonable concerns that have been expressed to have strict rules as to the content and use of the communications allowance? That would have to be done at a later stage. There may be Members who will try to stretch the rules, as it is alleged some Members do now, but the House must deal with that. Is not the answer to accept the principle and go for strict rules as to how the allowance is used when the details are decided?

Mrs. May: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: we need a set of rules so that every Member knows where they stand. The concern is that it is difficult to draw those rules up in a way that meets all the requirements of Members of Parliament. That is why I prefer an overall budget, which allows the Member of Parliament to choose how they communicate—whether they wish to produce an annual report, whether they wish to communicate electronically or by correspondence, and so on. Those are the issues for a Member to decide. Ultimately, voters will determine whether or not they have done a good job.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a matter of striking the right balance. Of course our constituents need to hear from us about what we are doing. Most of us in the House know what is legitimate communication and what taking the Michael is. A few Members, especially in the run-up to the 2005 general election, took the mickey out of allowances.

Mrs. May: Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although at least one of those who took the Michael, as he calls it, in relation to allowances lost their seat, so the voters gave a clear message to that individual.

I am conscious that I have been speaking for a considerable time, so I shall move on to the chunkier topic of September sittings. I agree with the Leader of the House that September provides an opportunity for Members to visit constituency organisations which it is otherwise not possible for them to visit, because such organisations often meet on weekdays and do not meet in August. In September Members have far greater opportunities to get around the constituency and do constituency business. It is important that they have September to do that.

My view is simple. We could change the order of the terms of our sittings. The hon. Member for Lewisham,
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Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is no longer in her seat, raised a wider issue. In my view, the party conference season is in desperate need of a shake-up. I would far prefer party conferences to take place over weekends, than during the week. In terms of enabling more people to have access to them— [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asks whether I am in favour of votes at party conferences. I suspect that he did not pay quite as much attention as he might have done to every day of the Conservative party conference. I will tell him that on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—not the Sunday—of party conference, I chaired a session where members of our candidates’ list put policy proposals to the conference and conference voted on those proposals, which are going forward to our policy review. So we did indeed have votes, and what is more, they were votes on policy.

We need to change the party conference— [Interruption.] I am not sure what the hon. Member for Reading, West is saying as he bounces up and down in his seat. I have always found the hon. Gentleman most stimulating in our exchanges. He is almost a neighbour, but not a direct neighbour because of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson).

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way once again. I support her in her efforts to reform the party conference season. We are discussing September sittings, but the conference season seems to last the whole of September. Why can we not come back earlier, in the first or second week of September? The only reason, it seems, is party conferences. Surely holding the House to account is much more important than the party conferences. The parties should accommodate an earlier return of the House.

Mrs. May: I am tempted to say that rather more people may be interested in attending our party conferences than the hon. Gentleman’s party conference, so it may be a more significant matter for the main political parties.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady agree that the motion tabled by the Leader of the House closes the option of September sittings? The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who said she would support the Leader of the House, nevertheless recognised that we needed to reform the year. The option of September sittings must form part of any review. Does the right hon. Lady agree that if we close the option of September sittings, we close off the possibility of an orderly balance in the year?

Mrs. May: Whatever the House may choose to do today, the House may choose in future to reconsider the balance of the year and come back with a different proposal. What we are debating today is whether we reintroduce the two weeks of September sittings that we had in 2003 and 2004. I do not think those worked particularly well in terms of the business that was dealt with during those sittings. There were other issues in relation to the works on the House, but the way in which the House manages those works can be
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addressed. For the reasons that I have set out, I believe that September is a good month for Members to be in their constituencies for longer periods than would otherwise be possible.

Mr. Mullin: Does the right hon. Lady agree that to give the Government an 80-day holiday from scrutiny is unhealthy in a democracy and ought not to happen?

Mrs. May: My two final points touch on that aspect. First, I welcome the opportunity that was introduced this year to table questions during the summer recess. It was a limited opportunity. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider expanding the opportunity for Members to table questions to Ministers during the summer recess, so that to some extent Government can be held to account.

The second point is one that I raise tentatively, as I do not have an immediate answer to it. An amendment which was not selected referred to it, although I do not agree with the proposal that it contained. The House may have to consider the matter of how Parliament can be recalled if necessary. It would be right and proper to consider that as part of a wider review. I support the motion tabled by the Leader of the House.

I shall briefly deal with the other points raised. We welcome the proposals on matters sub judice, and particularly the extra flexibility that they will introduce. The new discretionary powers for the Speaker will, if exercised well, give us greater opportunity for debate. I welcome the proposals relating to coroners’ courts, too. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) about the European Standing Committees. The Government promised to introduce proposals on European Standing Committees and on the scrutiny of European legislation. The Leader of the House’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), now the Minister for Europe—

Mr. David Heath: The silent Minister for Europe.

Mrs. May: Yes, he is the silent Europe Minister, as the hon. Gentleman reminds me.

Proposals on the subject were promised a considerable time ago, and hon. Members are beginning to wonder whether the Government were being genuine when they said that suggested changes would be put before the House. There is a real need to consider the issue of public sittings of the European Scrutiny Committees, and the way in which we scrutinise European legislation, because like secondary legislation, all too often it simply does not receive proper scrutiny in the House, although we know that it has a considerable impact on our constituents and the country.

I support the proposal on short speeches, as it makes sense, although if we had longer time for certain debates—for example, if we had two days for Second Readings—more Members could make a full contribution to the debate, without time restrictions applying.

In conclusion, I support the proposals on the legislative process, but the proposed communications
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allowance is not the right way forward. I support the Leader of the House in his other proposals, particularly those on September sittings.

2.11 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I intend to press my amendment to the motion on September sittings to a Division at the appropriate time.

As a preface to my remarks, the House may be interested to hear what occurred—or did not occur—with regard to allowances 40 years ago, when I first entered the House, for another constituency. There was no secretarial allowance, but hon. Members got a third of what they paid their secretary back in tax. It was rarely a full-time secretary, for obvious reasons. We paid postage for all letters, which was not an incentive to do any copying, and for telephone calls outside London. Notepaper was strictly rationed, and I can remember trying to argue the case for more. Some might say, but not necessarily me, that we have gone from one extreme to another.

I accept that my amendment, which is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, probably represents a minority viewpoint. I have no illusions: I know that all the indications are that the majority of Members will reject it. Nevertheless, it is important that the point of view that it represents should be put to the House and voted on. As I have said in interventions on other hon. Members, it seems quite wrong for the House to go into recess for a continuous period of 11 weeks. The issue is not whether we sit for longer than other Parliaments—we may well sit for longer than others in western Europe, and than the United States and Canada—but whether it is right that the House should be in recess for such a long period. That is the crux of the issue. I, like the hon. Members who will vote with me, find that unacceptable. There has been some progress: one could cite the example of written questions, which is obviously an advance, but it cannot possibly be considered a substitute for the House sitting.

Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Gentleman see any merit in the suggestion that the House should return earlier for the Christmas session, so that we do not come back for two weeks in September only to go away again, and so cause disruption to Parliament? Surely the sensible solution is to return in the middle or at the end of September, so that there is no disruption to the House, and so that we can subject the Government to scrutiny from that time onwards?

Mr. Winnick: One thing is absolutely certain—as has already been pointed out, if the amendment is rejected and a Government decision supported by the Opposition Front-Benchers is accepted, all options are closed down. I have no illusions on that score either. If the amendment were agreed to, which it will not be, it would obviously give us a great incentive to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests and to consider other options that are put forward. I repeat that if we accept the Government proposal, which is supported by the Opposition Front Bench, all other options are closed down—and for a pretty long period, I should imagine.

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Mr. Straw: First, the purpose of the motion in my name is to enable the House to make a decision on the subject, rather than having one foisted on it by the Government. Secondly, the motion will enable us to make a “permanent” decision, but such decisions are not for ever. Thirdly, if it assists my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, I am happy to give an undertaking on my own behalf—and I shall make the suggestion to the Modernisation Committee—that, before the end of the coming Parliament, we will review the practice of not having September sittings, if the motion in my name is passed.

Mr. Winnick: I have a great deal of respect for my right hon. Friend, as he knows, but my view is as I stated it a moment ago. As regards the end of the next Parliament, that is some time away, and I shall be rather pessimistic if the Government’s motion is accepted—but it is, of course, for the House to decide on that.

The recommendation in the 2002 report of the Modernisation Committee was clear:

Robin Cook, our late esteemed colleague, argued in the report’s favour. In debate in the House, he said:

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