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much appreciated being kept up to date
We appreciate all the communication we receive from you, and feel that you are the only MP that seems to genuinely care
Martin Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and not least for sparing the House from hearing any more about the people of Edgware. Does he accept that if we vote for the communications allowance, his activities are likely to be curtailed substantially? Is it not the case that the real scandal is not what we spend on serving our constituents, but the number of MPs who are happy to draw the full parliamentary salary on top of outside income earned elsewhere?
Several constituents have written to tell me that they do not have e-mail and pensioners in particular will be discriminated against if I can communicate only through that means. A lady from Edgware wrote:
I really do appreciate your letters and they are certainly passed on to quite a few people.
That particular constituent did not have e-mail and wanted me to continue by post. A pensioner from Colindale said that she did not have e-mail or computers. A pensioner from Southbourne crescent wrote:
Thank you for the letter that is so informative about the new health proposals.
John Bercow: Yes, my mother is one of the hon. Gentlemans constituents and he has helped her on a number of occasions, so she can happily be spared the privilege of a visit from him on a Sunday morning outside her home. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is a reasonable surmise on my part to suggest that, following this debate, each and every one of the people to whom he just referred will have popping through the letter box very soon a copy of the Official Report of todays proceedings.
Mr. Dismore: Those who have communicated by e-mail will get a copy but I am not sure about the others. Some constituents have even offered to pay for me to communicate with them. A lady from Mill Hill writes:
I should be willing to pay a subscription towards the cost: I have no e-mail address.
I would be happy to consider making regular payments to cover the costs of continued mailing.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. He is making a case for himself as the most outstanding Member of Parliament in the House. What was the percentage turnout in his constituency at the last election?
Mr. Dismore: I believe that it was about 60 per cent., which is good for London. However, that is not the point. It is not about party political campaigning, as has been alleged, but doing the job right and keeping people informed.
It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that my father... passed away.
I have spent the last few days going through his paper work and files and came across a file marked Dismore.
I always knew my father took a great deal of interest in charitable affairs, it was not though until I glanced through this file that it became clear what a compulsive letter writer he was to you about not only things close to his heart but of numerous local and international affairs.
What was so nice was that you in turn always took the time to answer not only his letters but to keep him informed of previous questions he had asked.
For that I thank you.
I, too, have listened carefully to the hon. Gentlemans comments. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), will the hon. Gentleman explain
how that productivity, which he claims is so important and can encourage turnout at elections, led in Hendon to a turnout of 58.3 per cent., when in Maidenhead the turnout was 73.3 per cent.?
Mr. Dismore: In London, turnout is traditionally lower because we have a much higher turnover on the electoral register. I regret to say that Conservative-controlled Barnet council does an appalling job on electoral registration and in keeping the register up to date. That has been well documented.
My main concern about the communications budget is whether it creates more problems than it solves. I am worried that if we cannot use the envelopes, some of my constituents will be disfranchised, especially the elderly who do not have access to other means of communication. I am also worried about what will happen towards the end of the year when we come to the end of a budget and a major issue arises. For example, faith schools arose last week. My constituency has the largest Jewish population of any constituency in the country and my constituents were not enamoured of what was happening. It happens to have the smallest Christian population of any constituency in the country, although last week it seemed as though all my constituents were Catholic. I faced a tsunami of correspondence from my constituents, Jewish and Catholic, protesting against the proposals. If that happened at the end of the financial year and I could not respond to them, I do not believe that they would be happy about it.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I am fascinated by the hon. Gentlemans account of the volume of his correspondence. Does he individually sign all the letters? How much time does he spend every day doing that?
I hope that we will be given some examples of how to overcome the problem of the budget at the end of the year. I am worried that the proposals will cost more than they do now. If people use generic vanity publishing as a method of communication, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South suggested, there will be a lack of the sort of detail that I can provide to constituents now.
My other concern is the lack of a level playing field in relation to councillors. My constituency has a Conservative council. Some six weeks before the last election, the leader of the council wrote a letter to everyone on a council estate that was undergoing regeneration attacking my position on the regeneration scheme. I was not allowed to answer those attacks, because that communication would have been unsolicited. It cannot be fair or right that we are subject to more controls than the councillors in our areas.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that this question relates not only to councillors and council leaders access to mailings but to the glossy magazines produced by some councils, irrespective of their political persuasion, the cost of which makes our proposals today seem quite trifling?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. When I was leader of the Labour group on Westminster city council 10 or 12 years ago, the then leader, Lady Porter, had a communications budget of more than £1 million for sending out glossy leaflets. Judging by what hon. Members with London homes in Westminster see coming through their letterboxes, I suspect that even more are now being sent out, at an even higher budget. I am very concerned about that.
The same problems apply to Scottish and Welsh Members because MSPs and AMs are not subject to any restrictions. Countries such as France have no restrictions either. Other parts of the world are much better at recognising that part of a Member of Parliaments job is to communicate effectively with their constituents. Whether the communications allowance will provide a solution remains to be seen when the details are worked out. Obviously, it will depend on how much it is. I shall certainly not use it for glossy leaflets; I shall want to buy stamps with it. I hope that we shall be able to introduce some common-sense rules. I agree with the point made by other hon. Members that the present rules are unclear.
I also hope that we shall be able to carry out surveys on important issues. The only time that I have had a complaint against me sustained was when, a few years ago, Transport for London wanted to widen the north circular road. It held a consultation, which had a very short shelf life, but we then found all its consultation leaflets dumped in a skip. On that occasion, I felt justified in writing to my constituents who were directly affected to ascertain their views. A Liberal Democrat councillor objected to that and I had to pay the postage costs. I made no objection to doing that, however. I felt that it had been the right thing to doit is the kind of thing that we should be allowed to do, whether using the communications allowance or by some other meansto ensure that those constituents views were heard in time, given that the official consultation had gone so pear-shaped. The answer to hon. Members on both sides of the House who do not want a communications allowance is that they do not need to claim it if they do not want to use it. However, those of us who do like to communicate with our constituents should be permitted to do so.
I do not favour September sittings. September is an important time for us to communicate with and meet our constituents. It is also a good time to visit schools. The rest of the time that we are in recess, schools tend to be on holiday or half-term holiday, which makes it difficult for us to visit them. Once they have settled down after the start of term in September, it is a good time to visit them to see whether there are any problems that they would like us to take up.
Also, the evenings are still light in September. Those hon. Members who, like me, wish to call on their constituents can do so for a couple of hours on a weekday evening during September, but that is not a practical proposition in November, for example.
Mark Lazarowicz: Will my hon. Friend give the House an indication of how long it would take him to get from Westminster to his constituency to discuss any urgent issues that might arise during parliamentary time?
Mr. Dismore: The short answer is that, bearing in mind the hours that the House sits, I would not get back to my constituency in time to do anything useful in the evening. That is one of the problems that London Members face as a result of having sittings during term time, as we do now. The only day on which there is a possibility of getting back in time is Thursday.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): That is the most extraordinary speech that I have heard in the House. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) protests far too much. What appears to be the wholesale abuse of the postage allowance by some Members is wrong. I have been here for some time, and my understandingperhaps it is incorrecthas always been that we are not allowed to use the franked postage system to send out circulars. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said that he had worked out that the hon. Member for Hendon was sending out 600 letters a day
Mr. Maples: Well, the hon. Gentleman worked out that people who were spending £25,000 a year on postage were sending out 600 letters a day. I cannot believe that all those letters were individually signed, and if they were not, they were circulars. It is expenses more than anything else that brings us into public disrepute, which is a reason why the communications allowance should be stopped quickly. The only comfort that I can take from the situationI say this to the hon. Member for Hendonis that there is considerable statistical evidence showing that such local efforts make absolutely no difference to the election result whatsoever because the seat experiences the national swing.
I had planned to speak about the sub judice rule, but since I have had to sit through three and a half hours of a somewhat Alice in Wonderland debate about all sorts of introspective issues, I thought that I would chuck some of my prejudices in as well. There is an illusion, or perhaps a delusion, that what we do is hold the Government to account and that if we were here more often, we would do it better. If we were serious about holding the Government to account, we would do two things that are never on the agenda at all. First, there should be a rule in Erskine May that Ministers have to give proper answers to written questions, which they do not at the moment. Secondly, Select Committees should have the power of their own volition to summon particular officials and ask to see particular documents. A Select Committee cannot do that at the moment because it has to go to the House for a
resolution, which it never gets because the Government whip their troops against it.
We do not have the power to hold the Government to account. We have the power to drag Ministers down here every so often and make them listen to the moans of Back Benchers, but that is not holding the Government to account. We had the opportunity to do that yesterday and we saw what happened. Holding Ministers to account is not to do with September sittings or how much of our allowances we spend on our staff, but proper answers to parliamentary questions and proper powers for Select Committees.
John Bercow: I realise that my hon. Friend has moved on from this matter, but in light of the importance of his earlier remarks, I have checked the record. He is absolutely right about the relatively ineffectual consequence of large-scale expenditure, because the share of the vote of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) fell by 8.1 per cent. at the past general election.
Mr. Dismore: That makes the point that I am putting forward: I am not doing this for party political or personal political advantage, but because I think that keeping constituents informed is the right thing to do.
Mr. Maples: The hon. Gentleman tempts me again. He said earlier that he thought that the amount that people spent depended on their generation in Parliament and that those who were elected relatively recently, such as him, spent more than those who came in a long time ago, such as me. I suspect that the correlation is with the marginality of peoples seats and that it has nothing to do with how long they have been here.
I am all in favour of short speechesI shall try to follow that today, as I always dobut any rule must also apply to Front Benchers if we are to be serious about short speeches. Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen are the worst abusers of the system. They always seem to feel that they must speak for as long as the Secretary of State did. We heard a rambling 25-minute speech from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman today, although he could have covered the territory in 10 minutes. We heard a 35-minute speech from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman yesterday, although he could have covered the territory in 20 minutes. The shadow Foreign Secretary spoke for 20 minutes yesterday, but the Liberal spokesman felt that he had to speak for 35 minutes. I suggest that Front-Bench spokesmen should be limited to 20 minutes, plus interventions.
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