Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Tenth Report

Conduct of Mr Michael Foster (Worcester)


1. We have considered a memorandum by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards relating to a complaint against Mr Michael Foster, Member for Worcester, by Mr Peter Luff, Member for Mid-Worcestershire. The Commissioner's memorandum is reproduced at Appendix 1.[1]

2. As the Commissioner explains in his memorandum, Mr Luff's complaint contained four specific grounds. However, for the reasons set out in his report, the Commissioner has only investigated and reported on two of them. The first of these relates to the alleged misuse of pre-paid envelopes by Mr Foster to send out a letter in similar terms to a substantial number of constituents, advising them of a change of constituency office address. The second relates to the inclusion of allegedly inappropriate material in an annual report funded from the Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP). We consider each of these separately below.

3. Prior to considering the Commissioner's memorandum, we invited Mr Foster's comments on it and these are reproduced at Appendix 2.[2] Mr Foster has co-operated fully with the Commissioner in his inquiry, but disagrees in both cases with the conclusions he reached.

4. We consider in turn below the two elements of Mr Luff's complaint on which the Commissioner has reported to us. Our consideration of these has also revealed in both respects what we consider to be significant shortcomings in the relevant rules, and in the guidance available to Members on their application.

Mr Foster's Notification of a Change of Constituency Office Address

5. There is no dispute as to the facts. Mr Foster maintained a database of constituents who had asked to be kept informed of his parliamentary activities. He used pre-paid envelopes and stationery provided at House expense[3] to send them notification of a change in his constituency office address. The method he chose was to send each of them a letter with a copy of a calendar which included the new contact details. The inclusion of the calendar was described by Mr Foster as "a by-product for these particular correspondents": according to him, the vast majority of the calendars were delivered by volunteers, by hand and unaddressed.[4]

6. Mr Foster maintains that ensuring that interested constituents have up to date contact details for their Member of Parliament is part of the vital link between Members and constituents.[5] We do not disagree with these sentiments, and note that nobody has sought to argue that advising constituents of a change of office address is not a proper Parliamentary activity on a Member's part. The principle of whether the cost of sending these letters could be publicly funded is therefore not in dispute; the issue is whether they could properly be sent using stationery and envelopes provided at the expense of the House itself, or whether the cost should have been borne by Mr Foster's IEP.

7. On 9 May, Mr Foster, although still convinced that his interpretation of the rules was correct, informed us of his decision to repay the House for the cost of the headed paper and 562 second class envelopes he had used to send out the new address details to constituents on his database, and to charge this against his IEP instead.[6]

8. We have drawn Mr Foster's decision to the Commissioner's attention and he has commented as follows:

    "As I noted in paragraphs 8 and 40 of my report to the Committee on this complaint, a Member may use his IEP to meet the cost of stationery, plain envelopes and postage to convey surgery and contact details to his constituents. Had Mr Foster initially met the cost of his 16 December letter from his IEP in this way, there would have been no reason for me to report adversely to the Committee on this limb of the complaint.

    The Committee may feel that Mr Foster's decision removes the need for it to adjudicate further on this aspect of my report."

9. There is no question of Mr Foster having made inappropriate use of resources provided at public expense in sending out this mailing to constituents, and he had sufficient headroom in his IEP to fund this. We therefore agree with the Commissioner that Mr Foster's decision of 9 May to fund this mailing from his IEP removes the need for us to adjudicate further on this aspect of the complaint.

10. The Commissioner also commented:

    "The Committee will recognise that Mr Foster continues genuinely to believe that his interpetation of the Stationery and Postage Rules is correct. The fact that, as this case has revealed, it is possible to reach quite different conclusions as to what is permitted and what is not permitted under the Rules is evidence of the pressing need for those Rules to be revised and clarified."

We agree with the Commissioner.

11. The existing rules, which derive their force from approval by the Speaker on the advice of the Administration Committee, are reproduced in full at Appendix 3. Surprisingly, these do not appear to be readily available to Members. Guidance on their content is, however, available on the House Intranet, and in a leaflet issued by the Serjeant-at-Arms, but in our view the rules themselves should be readily available.

12. The Commissioner has commented[7] on the 'evident complexity' of the rules and that there is at the moment no single authoritative document to which Members and their staff can turn which sets out all the relevant considerations in plain language. We agree with him that there should be, not least because since the House extended the scope of the Code of Conduct in July 2005 to include misuse of facilities and services, complaints of such misuse (which include misuse of stationery) have been a matter for the Commissioner in accordance with Standing Order No. 150, and therefore for adjudication by us.

13. We recommend that both the Serjeant at Arms' leaflet and intranet guidance on stationery be revised as soon as possible to set out, in full, the authoritative text of the existing rules, together with appropriate explanatory material, including any relevant case law. This would represent a start in providing for Members and their staff, both at Westminster and in the constituency, the authoritative guidance which the Commissioner rightly says is lacking at present. If Members are still in doubt as to the interpretation of the rules, they should seek advice.

14. However, this step alone will be insufficient to achieve the necessary standards of clarity and certainty. This is the first case we have dealt with involving allegation of misuse of stationery. It has revealed a number of uncertainties over the proper interpretation of what constitutes a circular and the scope of communications which can properly be described as 'solicited'. It is essential that these uncertainties are removed as soon as possible.

15. From the introduction of pre-paid stationery in 1969, a key element in the regulatory regime has been the good sense of individual Members, reinforced by the limited rules which successive Speakers, together with the relevant Committees of the House, have laid down over the years. We do not believe that this framework needs to change now that the House has brought these matters within the scope of the Code of Conduct. We are also convinced that the alternative, of piecemeal and essentially arbitrary development of the rules through our own decisions in response to the chance mechanism of complaints, would not be a satisfactory alternative. Our role in this respect is to apply the rules laid down by the appropriate authority, not to make them.

16. We agree with the Commissioner that a single unified stationery and postage regime governed by one clear set of rules would reduce the scope for both deliberate and inadvertent misuse. This would undoubtedly be of benefit both to Members themselves, and to wider public confidence in the system. We are happy to work with the House of Commons Commission and the Administration Committee as appropriate to ensure that, whatever arrangements ultimately emerge from the current review, the rules are clear and capable of effective enforcement. However, whether or not a single unified regime results from the current review, we recommend that the existing rules are clarified as a matter of urgency in the areas we have identified in paragraph 14 above.

17. We and the Commissioner nevertheless have to interpret the existing rules in the meantime. When our predecessor Committee recommended bringing misuse of facilities within the scope of the Code, it was not its intention that this should lead to a spate of complaints of minor and technical breaches of the rules relating to the use of stationery being subject to the full investigative procedure of the Code, culminating in some cases in a report to the House. It was to avoid this that it recommended, and the House subsequently introduced into the Standing Orders, a procedure designed to ensure that many cases, particularly those where any breach was minor or inadvertent, could be disposed of by the Commissioner without the need for this through and extension of the rectification procedure which already existed in relation to minor failures to register or declare interests.[8]

18. We will be discussing with the Commissioner how this aim should be reflected in criteria, agreed between him and us, for determining whether complaints involving alleged misuse of stationery are dealt with by him under the rectification procedure, as distinct from being the subject of a report to us. When we have agreed these, we anticipate that the categories of case on which he will continue to report to us will include cases where there is clear evidence of an intention on the Member's part to breach the rules; there has been an evident failure by the Member to exercise good sense; there are significant sums of money at issue; there are new issues of practice or principle involved, on which the Commissioner wishes us to express a view; or where the Commissioner considers that the complaint could be dealt with under the rectification procedure, but the Member concerned does not agree with this.

Mr Foster's Annual Report

19. Mr Luff alleged that Mr Foster's annual report, which is reproduced at Appendix 4, breached the rules on publications funded from the IEP in three respects.[9] The Commissioner in his report, reflecting the view of the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA), considered that it did so only in respect of one of these,[10] the captions of three photographs that include explicit reference to the 'Labour Government', which Mr Terry Bird, Director of Operations in the DFA, considered had "strayed into party political comment".[11] Mr Bird told the Commissioner that DFA is minded as a result, following its usual practice in cases where it appears that inappropriate material has been included in an IEP-funded publication, to initiate recovery proceedings against Mr Foster in respect of the payment made from his IEP to cover the cost.

20. Mr Foster maintains that the references in the captions to 'the Labour Government' are factual and not party political either in intent or in nature.[12]

21. We accept that Mr Foster did not set out to break the rules prohibiting the inclusion of party political material in an IEP-funded publication and note that he accepts, with hindsight that "it would have been better to have let the Department of Finance and Administration see the text first to iron out any matters of interpretation".[13] We understand why the Commissioner concluded that, in respect of each of the three captions, the sentence which includes a reference to 'the Labour Government', may be seen as party political in character. We agree with the Commissioner that Mr Foster was not in breach of the rules in relation to the two other aspects complained of.

22. In his evidence to the Commissioner, Mr Foster has drawn attention to a number of examples of other cases where both newsletters and websites include material which, if the subject of a complaint, might be adjudged to be party political in nature on the tests applied by the Commissioner and the DFA.[14] We do not therefore believe that it would be right for us to single Mr Foster out in this respect.

23. We are aware of a case in the last Parliament where our predecessors upheld a complaint in respect of inappropriate material in a part-IEP funded publication, and repayment of the IEP element ensued.[15] Whereas the current case might, at worst, stray over the border of what constitutes party political comment, it is clear from our predecessors' report that the previous case involved a clearer, more deliberate transgression.

24. There are clearly significant differences of interpretation amongst Members as to the acceptable limits of party-related material that can properly be included in IEP funded material. The three sentences in this report referring to 'the Labour Government' do not appear to be outside the range of Members' current practice. In these circumstances, we are not prepared to find Mr Foster in breach of the Code in this respect, nor do we consider that he should be required to repay the cost of his annual report.

25. These significant differences of view represent an unsatisfactory position from the perspective of those who have to enforce the rules, and need to be addressed. We intend to report further to the House on the general matter of publications funded from the IEP and will look at the scope for a tighter definition of permissible expenditure. In the meantime, we once again draw the attention of the House to the importance of ensuring high standards of propriety in the use of Parliamentary allowances, and reiterate Mr Speaker's advice in his introduction to the Green Book that Members should seek advice in cases of doubt.

1   P. 7. Back

2   P. 29. Back

3   The cost of such stationery is met from the House of Commons: Administration Vote, whereas Members' allowances fall to the House of Commons: Members' Vote. Back

4   WE9, p. 27. Back

5   Appendix 2, p 29. Back

6   See also Appendix 3, p 31. Back

7   Appendix 1, para. 52. Back

8   SO No. 150 (3) (b). Back

9   Appendix 1, para. 2. Back

10   Appendix 1, para. 48. Back

11   Appendix 1, para. 25. Back

12   WE9, p. 27. Back

13   WE9, p. 27. Back

14   WE7, p. 25 and WE9, p. 27. Back

15   First Report, Session 2004-05 (HC 71). Back

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