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The deal is that the House will rise two weeks earlier in July, which will be for the convenience of those Members with children at schools that go back in August. In return, Members will be expected to come back for two weeks in September.[ Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 693.]
The House voted enthusiastically for that deal. Our late colleague Eric Forth, then shadow Leader of the
House, I believe, complained that we would only be returning for two weeks rather than three.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and seeking fully to justify what he supports and does not support. Will he clarify whether, when we had September sittings, the House rose a fortnight earlier in July? If my memory serves me correctly, it did not, and that was part of the problem. If it had risen a fortnight in advance, it would have been helpful for Members with children at school.
The House voted enthusiastically for that deal, so it is not a question of a small group of zealots trying to impose on the majority of the House our way of doings things. We are merely asking that we stick to what we agreed, or at least to something closely resembling it. Almost immediately, however, it was apparent that there was little enthusiasm for the new arrangement, either at the highest levels of Governmentwith the sole exception of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Houseor among the establishment of the House. We sat in September 2003 and 2004, but last year we were told that we could not sit because a new security screen had to be erected in the Public Gallery and, blow me down, the work could only be carried out in the first half of September. I asked at the time for a guarantee that once the screen was up we would be allowed to resume the practice to which we had previously agreed, and I have to say that the answers from the Minister concerned were opaque. I was not in the least surprised to discover that we could not sit in the autumn of 2006.
Mr. Heath: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that when we did sit in September it seemed somehow impossible to timetable the necessary maintenance works to coincide with the sitting of the House, so that it was in a poor state of repair? I am sure that that was not an attempt to sabotage the proposals, but it was not conducive to good parliamentary business.
Mr. Mullin: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am at least grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we have not been allowed to renege quietly on the deal and, if it has to be reneged upon, it will be done
Whatever the current degree of enthusiasm for September sittings in the House, I am in no doubt that there is great enthusiasm for them among our constituents, many of whom firmly believe, despite our protestations to the contrary, that when the House is not sitting we are all sunning ourselves in the south of France. We all know that that is not true, but the best way to knock the myth firmly on the head is for the House to sit and for us to be seen to be doing the job for which we are primarily paid.
I am aware that September traditionally provides us with an opportunity to carry out many engagements
that we might not otherwise have time for during the rest of the year. However, I repeat that we are talking about only eight days in September. Moreover, the House sits for only a little over half the year. Assuming that we do not regard the remaining half of the year as holiday, we can surely adjust our constituency engagements to allow for sitting eight days in September.
I have seen the answer supplied to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who speaks on behalf of the Commission, setting out the likely impact on the maintenance programme. All I would say is that it cannot be beyond the wit of those concerned to organise the works programme to fit in with September sittings, especially if they have plenty of notice.
The amendment is part of a wider struggle against the erosion of the esteem in which Parliament is held. To some extent, we have only ourselves to blame for that erosion. It always puzzles me that we fight hard to get into this place, but having got here, many of us cannot wait to get home again. Last Thursday, we discussed the White Paper published by the Department for International Development, and the Opposition spokesman actually complained that the Government were holding the debate at a time when many hon. Members could not be presentthat was a Thursday afternoon, for goodness sake. How can we expect the public to take Parliament seriously if we do not?
John Bercow: I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) or my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) make that observation. The gravamen of the criticism of the timetabling of that debate was not that it was on a Thursday afternoon, but that it was going to be so incredibly short for such important matters.
If we care about how we and Parliament are regarded, the solution is in our own hands. We have an opportunity this afternoon to demonstrate that we do care about how we are regarded outside this place. I therefore urge the House to put an end to the practice of vanity publishingit has grown up only in the past few years and needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets totally out of controland to support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North on September sittings.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He carried me with him for half of his arguments. One of the motions before us relates to short speeches, but we are not doing frightfully well on that score this afternoon. I propose to bring down sharply the average length of speeches in this debate.
When the Leader of the House opened the debate some three hours ago, he painted a rosy picture of parliamentary reform since 1997. He rightly said that there have been some improvementsincluding Westminster Hall and the Prime Ministers appearance before the Liaison Committee. Had the Leader of the Houses speech been even longer, I am sure that he would have recognised the items to be put in the scale on the other side. For example, there is a widespread view that Parliament is increasingly bypassed. Ministerial announcements are made outside the Chamber. We had the fiasco of the Robin Cook reforms to the Select Committees being voted down. We have seen a loss of flexibility in Standing Committees because of the automatic programming of Bills. We have more and more Government amendments. The House of Lords has to put right legislation that we have not had time to put right hereand we have had the shambles of House of Lords reform. Whether we are better able to hold the Executive to account is a more balanced question than the Leader of the House implied when he opened the debate.
On September sittings, I do not mind sitting in September, but I do not want to come back then and sit for two weeks. The Leader of the House suggested an eminently sensible way forwardthat we do not deal with this question in an ad hoc way, but take a more holistic view of how and when we sit. We could then revisit the question of whether to sit in September against the background of that debate.
I want to speak briefly to motion 6, which invites us to endorse the principle of establishing from 1 April next year a separate allowance to help us to communicate with constituents about parliamentary business. It also instructs the Members Estimate Committee to prepare a detailed proposal for such an allowance. Motion 6 differs from the others in that no explanatory memorandum is associated with it, nor any Select Committee report that sheds light on the case that it makes.
I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expendituresomething that has not been mentioned in the debate as much as it should have beenand the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that could undermine Parliaments legitimacy. We should never forget that one reason why we are all here is to keep a watch on what happens to our constituents taxes. We need to be doubly careful when, as is the case with motion 6, hon. Members rather than the Executive are the conduit through which the taxes pass. We must also recognise that the Houses reputation is involved when it votes increased allowances for itself.
We discuss motion 6 in something of a vacuum as we do not know what it will cost. It need not cost anything, but the Leader of the Houses response to an intervention suggested that the motion will have an associated cost. Nor is it clear how the motion relates to the work on fixing our allowance in which the Senior Salaries Review Body is presently engaged. Will the SSRB be asked to contribute to the work mentioned in
the motion, or does the motion, in effect, pre-empt one aspect of the boards work?
If the proposed allowance is approved, it should replace rather than supplement the two existing IEP funding regimesone of them for free stationery and postage, and the other for funding stationery and postage, parliamentary newsletters and similar publications, and websites. If those hopes were fulfilled, there would be consequential implications for the scope and level of the residual IEP allowance. However, if the proposed allowance is to be introduced not at nil net cost, but as a way of providing additional headroom for expenditure, I have not heard a compelling case so far today in support of the House voting in favour of providing up to £6 million in increased public expenditure.
The current regime has featured in recent cases considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like the one chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), my Committee does not travel far: since I have been Chairman, I do not think that we have ever ventured beyond Committee Room 13. The Committee has found significant shortcomings in the regime for free stationery and postage and in the IEP regime. Our concern about those shortcomings, which affect all parties in the House, is shared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
The cases at the heart of the Committees ninth and 12th reports highlighted some of the weaknesses and ambiguities in the existing rules for postage and stationery. In our ninth report, we supported the replacement of the current arrangements by a single unified stationery and postage regime, governed by one clear set of rules. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) noted that it was somewhat farcical that one cannot claim back money from the IEP in respect of a House of Commons envelope, but that one can do so when one bought a postage stamp and put in on a plain envelope.
The Committee considered that the introduction of a unified regime would benefit both hon. Members and the wider publics confidence in the system. We also said that we would work with the House of Commons Commission and the Administration Committee, as appropriate, to ensure that the rules surrounding such a regime, whatever form it ultimately took, were clear and capable of effective enforcement.
The question of the scope of material that properly could be included in an IEP-funded publication has also concerned the Committee, and was dealt with in our ninth report. That report found that there were considerable differences of interpretation, to put the matter tactfully, among Members of Parliament about where the boundary lay between legitimate parliamentary activity, which can be funded out of the IEP, and party political and campaigning activity, which cannot. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South about the incumbency factor that we are building into the allowances.
The Committee commented that those significant differences of view among hon. Members represented a very unsatisfactory position from the perspective of those who have to enforce the rules, and that they needed to be addressed. We said that we would look
further at the general matter of publications funded from the IEP and determine whether there was scope for a tighter definition of permissible expenditure.
If the House agrees the motion, the Members Estimate Committee will, in effect, be given the task of making proposals for a communication allowance and will have to address the shortcomings to which I have just referred and which we planned to examine. I do not envy the Committee its task of dealing with the various interpretations of what exactly constitutes parliamentary business. As someone who, along with the hon. Members for Sunderland, South and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), will have to enforce the rules if a new communications allowance is introduced, I stand ready to assist the Members Estimate Committee in drawing up clear, readily understood rules for the new allowance, which are capable of effective enforcement. That is in the common interest of Members and those responsible for enforcing the rules; it is also in the wider public interest.
Finally, if the communication allowance were to be introduced on a nil net cost basis I would support it, because it would bring in a cap, which we do not have at present, for postage and stationery. If, however, there were to be a net cost to the taxpayeras seems likelyI would oppose it. I am not persuaded that the case has been made. At a time when public services are under pressurefor example, today there is a rally on behalf of those concerned about difficult decisions in the NHSI do not believe that the case for higher expenditure to support that particular aspect of our activity has been made.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I particularly want to refer to the communications allowance, as I have been named three times directly in the debate and once obliquely, based on my expenditure on stamps. My response to that is that I would rather be No. 1 than at the bottomat No. 640, or whatever it is. My position reveals that I have been trying to do my best to keep my constituents informed about what is going on. It is a matter of pride to me to be at the top rather than the bottom of the list. Indeed, I would question what some of those at the bottom are doing to earn their wagesa point that has already been made in the debate.
What exactly is the problem we are trying to address? Ours must be the only job in the world where high productivity is seen as something to be criticised rather than praised, as would happen in the real world outside. There is a generational issue: Members who have arrived here since 1997, on both sides of the House, take a different attitude to the job from those who have been here longer. Those of us elected in 1997 and subsequently have more of a constituency focus in our work; we are much more alive to the need to try to keep our constituents aware of what is going onnot just what we have been doing, but what is going on in the House and also in our communities. They often cannot find such information anywhere else. Local newspapers tend to be relatively superficial because they have limited column inches, and the approach of the national press to the issues can only be described as generic.
I am satisfied that I perfectly comply with the rules. If I did not, there would be many complaints. I go out
of my way to inform my constituents about what is going on, in a non-party political way. I put out material on my website and I try to encourage people to use e-mail whenever possible. I defy anybody to find a party political slantthe accusation that has been levelled at mein any of that material. Even if I had sent out letters in the numbers talked about in the press, it averages out at rather less than one letter per resident in my constituency, which contains 110,000 people.
Other people have sent out annual reports under the IEP. I do not do that. They may have communicated with every person in their community more than once. I do not do that. I respond, in detail, to requests for information that people cannot find anywhere else. I do not use the IEP fund for that. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised the important point that the IEP does not go as far in London as in other parts of the country. In fact, most of mine goes on the rent for the hovel we call homemy constituency office. I do not have excess money to spend on leaflets and the vanity publishing to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) referred; I just want to make sure that my constituents are among the best informed in the country about what is actually happening in their communities.
That does not mean just writing to people, but going around, as I do, knocking on doors every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning or on weekday evenings in Septembera point to which I shall return. It means having tea parties that people can attend to meet me, constituency surgeries, street stalls and visiting council estates regularly to listen to complaints and take them up, all of which generate a significant amount of work, as do the petitions that I receive almost daily. Constituents in Hendon like writing letters and signing petitions.
I can illustrate my point by quoting some of the letters that I have received. Since I knew that we were going to conduct this debatethere were rumblings for several monthsI started to ask constituents, whenever I wrote to them, whether they would let me have their e-mail address if they had one and to warn them that there might be restrictions on the amount of correspondence that we could send. I have received a huge sheaf of letters, but I shall refer only to one or two.
We very much appreciate these reports... We read frequent reports of the drop in the turn-out at elections and the fall in public interest in political matters.
to reduce the budget of MPs correspondence with their constituents - which will save a trivial amount of money compared with the wastefulness and mismanagement of... other public expenditure shows a remarkable degree of stupidity. The House of Commons authorities must be mad! Please pass this letter to them.
How much are we talking about? If we are talking about allowances of about £10,000, only 20 Members
have spent more. The total cost of that excess is just more than £100,000, and I suspect that if we introduce the allowance it will cost rather more than the £100,000 that might be saved. If we put that against some of the waste mismanagement to which Mr. Morris referred£400,000 spent on a covered walkway in the yard downstairs, for examplethat would have paid for four years worth of envelopes for everyone who has been criticised for using rather more allowance than they should.
it disappoints me to hear that your budget to keep constituents informed by post may be cut. I do not possess an email facility and bearing in mind the vast sums of public money that are wasted this seems to be a miserly posture by the House of Commons.
Such a comprehensive report is to be commended and is much appreciated.
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