Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Tenth Report

Written evidence received by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

1.  Letter to the Commissioner from Mr Peter Luff, 2 February 2006

MICHAEL FOSTER: MP FOR WORCSTER; misuse of Incidental Expenses Provision and franked envelopes

I do not like reporting my colleagues for abuse of the rules on the use of the IEP and stationery but I have received complaints from individuals in Worcester which, as a member of the Administration Committee, I feel I must report.

I had occasion to report Mr Foster to the Serjeant-at-Arms last year for misuse of franked envelopes. He had used a franked envelope to send a constituent a circular newsletter. The newsletter itself appeared to be properly printed and funded outside the IEP, but the use of the envelope was simply wrong. I considered this a clear breach of the rules and was very sorry when the Serjeant felt able to conclude only that the evidence proved one such abuse—the sending of one circular to the individual who had complained. Mr Foster's defence was that his office had understood the complainant had indicated that she wanted to be kept informed of his parliamentary work, and that her name would now be removed from the list of such people.

The rules are unequivocal—franked envelopes may not be used under any circumstances for circulars and Mr Foster was, in my judgement, extremely lucky to escape serious censure. I enclose (a rather poor quality) copy of the Serjeant's final letter on the subject dated 9th December 2005.

However, despite these events, Mr Foster has compounded his original error by sending the same complainant two further circular items—a subsequent edition (or, if I am right, a second copy of the previous edition!) of the parliamentary newsletter and, in a separate envelope, a circular letter together with a calendar in Labour Party colours and identical in style to his election literature, funded through the IEP. Both mailings were distributed in second class franked envelopes. Interestingly, the reverse of both envelopes bears a rubber stamp impression with a return address—a clear indication that they were part of a large distribution and that returned envelopes would be used to correct a significant mailing list.

This of itself would be a worrying and apparently large breach of the rules. However, there is a further significant matter that I must also draw to your attention following complaints made to me.

Last week Mr Foster used the IEP to produce his annual report—a "wrap-around" on a local free newspaper, "The Worcester Standard". This is a perfectly acceptable distribution method, but the contents fall well short of the standards the rules demand.

First, in four separate ways, the publication promotes the Labour Party. Mr Foster is seen wearing a Labour Party rosette (the original is in colour, of course), and three of the extended captions to the photographs (Page 2, "A Sure Start" and page 3 "Supporting Parents and Children" and "Henwick is 'State of the Art'") praise Labour government achievements.

These breaches alone would deserve action, but it is the form on page 4 that compounds the error and, in my view, explains how Mr Foster generates his lists of constituents who request that they "be kept informed of Mr Foster's parliamentary work", to quote the Serjeant's letter. Respondents are invited to tick a box if they "would like to receive a quarterly newsletter giving details of his work in Worcester and Westminster". This is solicitation of a request to be contacted—and copies a similar tactic used by Mr Foster with local schools some years ago which he was rightly forced to abandon. Such solicitation is outside the rules as Mr Foster well knows from that earlier experience.

The methods used by Mr Foster to promote not only his own name but also his party are contrary to the rules of the House and I urge you to investigate activities which put other local political parties and candidates at a severe disadvantage and simply use public funds for entirely inappropriate purposes.

I enclose copies of all the relevant items, but I have, at this stage, retained the originals. I would of course be happy to meet you and to give you the originals if that would be helpful.

2 February 2006  Mr Peter Luff

2.  Letter to a constituent from Mr Michael Foster, 16 December 2005

As someone who asked to be kept up to date with Parliamentary matters, I do hope you find my correspondence useful. You may be aware that I moved my constituency office during the summer. The full details are on the attached calendar, which also gives details of my regular advice surgeries, different ways you can contact me about local or national issues, I am only too happy to hear from you.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish you and your family a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year. I am looking forward to working with you in 2006.

16 December 2005  Mr Michael Foster

3.  Rules on the use of Stationery, Post-paid Envelopes and the Crowned Portcullis from the Serjeant at Arms' Department, Summer 2005

House of Commons stationery is provided at public expense and is therefore subject to a set of rules approved by the Speaker, on the recommendation of the Administration Committee. The same applies to use of the Crowned Portcullis, the principal emblem of the House. In each case application and interpretation usually rests on the good sense of individual Members, with supervision and enforcement by the Serjeant at Arms.

When can original House stationery and post paid envelopes* be used at public expense?

*Post paid envelopes should be safeguarded to prevent misuse and not be overprinted in any way. Spoilt envelopes should be sent back to the Postmaster for refund of postage.

When can original House stationery and plain envelopes be used, at a Member's own expense? **

  • For unsolicited circulars and letters on constituency issues
  • Questionnaires or surveys that are 'politically neutral'
  • In response to answers from surveys/questionnaires
  • For surgery/contact details
  • Welcome to new constituents letters
  • To send any type of greeting card
  • Correspondence of All Party Groups which include people who are not Members of Parliament.

**Please note some circulars and their distribution costs can be claimed through Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP). Members should check with Finance and Administration Department.

When can original House stationery and envelopes NOT be used?

  • Personal, business or commercial correspondence
  • In connection with fund raising for a political party
  • Advocating membership of a political party
  • Supporting the return of somebody to public office.

How can stationery be ordered?

Members and their staff can order stationery for Parliamentary or constituency offices from the House of Commons Stationery catalogue or on line at ***. This will be delivered the next working day to Westminster or any other designated UK address. Serjeant at Arms' staff can provide complete stationery ordering packs,.

Can post-paid envelopes be used for overseas addresses?

Only for BFPO numbered addresses. Post-paid envelopes valid for European destinations are available from the stationery catalogue.

Are there special rules for times when Parliament has been dissolved?

Yes—House stationery, House emblems and post-paid envelopes must not be used during the period of dissolution. In correspondence ex-Members must not use the title MP or the House of Commons address until the day after Polling Day if re-elected.

What are the rules for use of the Crowned Portcullis?

The Crowned Portcullis is a royal badge and its use by the House has been formally authorised by licence granted by Her Majesty the Queen. The designs and symbols of the house should only be used for appropriate purposes and not when it might be wrongly regarded or represented as carrying the authority of the House when this is not the case.

Can Associated Parliamentary Groups use the Crowned Portcullis?

Those which include people other than Members of Parliament may use stationery other than original House stationery, subject to the same rules as those applying to Members and their use of Original House Stationery for circulars.

Where can I get further information about supplies of House of Commons stationery?

From the House of Commons Stationery Helpdesk or the Senior Office Keeper.

Who can advise me on appropriate use of House of Commons stationery?

If in doubt please telephone the Serjeant at Arms office.

4.  Guidance note on the use of post-paid envelopes from the Serjeant at Arms' Department

Post Paid Envelopes

Members should note that post paid envelopes are charged at the appropriate rate as soon as they are supplied. They should be safeguarded to prevent misuse.

5.  Guidance note on circulars from the Serjeant at Arms' Department


a)  for correspondence of a business, commercial or personal nature; or

b)  in connection with fund raising for the benefit of a political party, advocating the membership of a political party, or supporting the return of any person to public office.

c)  An Associate Parliamentary Group which includes persons other than Members of Parliament may make use of House emblems on stationery other than original House stationery.

  • For the purposes of these regulations the following are considered to be circulars:

a)   a letter sent in identical or near identical form to a number of addresses (whether or not it is individually signed and addressed) if it is unsolicited, ie. if it is not sent in reply to queries or correspondence from the addresses;

b)  common-form coming of age greetings cards or letters, or equivalent communications sent to new constituents;

c)  A letter sent in identical or near identical form to a number of addresses acknowledging replies to any letter, questionnaire or survey that itself was unsolicited.

  • For further information the leaflet Use of House Emblem, House Stationery and post paid envelopes is available from Outbuilding Reception Desks and the Serjeant at Arms Office x3070.

6.  Letter to Mr Michael Foster from the Commissioner, 8 February 2006

Complaint by Peter Luff MP

I enclose a copy of a letter and enclosures I have received from Peter Luff MP in which he complains, on behalf of others, that you have misused post-paid envelopes supplied by the House and have also breached the rules on publications funded from the Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP).

Specifically, Mr Luff alleges that:

1. you have used post-paid envelopes to send unsolicited communications to various people in your constituency. These include a parliamentary newsletter (which may or may not have been identical to one about which Mr Luff had previously complained to the Serjeant at Arms) and in a separate envelope, a circular letter together with a calendar funded through the IEP;

2. your recently circulated newsletter to constituents, again funded through the IEP, breaches the rules in that it promotes the Labour Party and includes a form through which constituents are invited to tick a box if they "would like to receive a quarterly newsletter giving details of [your] work in Worcester and Westminster." Mr Luff argues that this amounts to solicitation of a request to be contacted, and that such solicitation is also outside the rules.

When the House revised the Code of Conduct for Members in July last year, it adopted a recommendation of the Committee on Standards and Privileges that alleged misuse of facilities and services provided by the House should, like misuse of allowances, be within the scope of the Code. The Code accordingly now includes a provision that:

"Members shall at all times ensure that their use of expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is strictly in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters, and that they observe any limits placed by the House on the use of such expenses, allowances, facilities and services."

As you know the administration of House stationery rests with the Serjeant at Arms and of the Incidental Expenses Provision with the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). I am therefore writing to the Serjeant and to the Controller of Operations in the DFA (Mr Terry Bird) to invite their comments on Mr Luff's complaint.

I should be grateful if, in parallel, you will let me have your own explanation of the circumstances which have led to the complaint and your response to the points Mr Luff makes. To help you in this process I am enclosing a copy of the leaflet on stationery, post-paid envelopes and use of the crowned portcullis produced by the Serjeant and of the guidance note on publications funded from the IEP issued by the DFA.

You may also find helpful the enclosed note of guidance for Members who are the subject of a complaint, which sets out the procedure I follow when investigating a complaint.

If, having read this material, you have any questions about what is required or would like a word, please do not hesitate to ring me on the number above.

I look forward to receiving your reply. It would be helpful to have this, if possible, by the end of the forthcoming half-term recess.

8 February 2006  Sir Philip Mawer

7.  Letter to the Commissioner from Mr Michael Foster, 20 February 2006[23]

Complaint by Peter Luff MP

Thank you for your letter of the 8 February detailing two specific allegations made by Mr Luff. Both of these I will address, in addition I will in response point out the continued vexatious nature of complaints made against me either by, or in conjunction with Mr Luff.

Firstly, the use of post-paid House of Commons envelopes to send an unsolicited communication to people in my constituency. This matter was dealt with by the Serjeant at Arms office in November 2005. I pointed out that *** had contacted my office requesting to be kept informed of my parliamentary work. Such a request did not involve merely ticking a box as Mr Luff wrongly suggests, but when *** responded she also supplied her e-mail address. This is not someone who accidentally wants me to contact her, but makes a conscious effort to do so.

Her motives may not of course have been genuine, but I was not able to ascertain this at the time. Obviously by not raising the matter with me, but with Mr Luff, the political nature of the motive becomes clear.

I did assure [the Assistant Serjeant at Arms] of my intention to remove *** from my database. I instructed my staff accordingly, (see attached e-mail). I was dismayed, to put it politely, that she received a letter dated 16 December with a surgery notice and calendar. She should not have. My staff believed they had deleted her name, but for whatever reason it had not been removed. I accept, as office holder, responsibility for this and apologise to you and the Serjeant at Arms for this error.

However, I would point out that I am accused of re-sending a Summer Update with this letter. I did not. My covering letter makes reference to a change of office address, and an enclosure of a calendar with useful numbers and a reminder of my contact details. It does not refer to a Summer Update report. Why would I re-send a piece of literature to someone who had complained about receiving it previously? I mention this, as I suspect this person has misinformed Mr Luff, accidentally or not.

Mr Luff has form on this front. In January 2000 he complained to your predecessor, Elizabeth Filkin, about an alleged abuse of Parliamentary stationery, brought to his attention by a Mr Russell Hughes. Having checked this out, it was found that Mr Hughes was an entirely fictitious character and when I checked his address, he apparently lived in a house that didn't exist either. I heard no more from Ms Filkin about this complaint.

In 2004 a complaint was made to [the then Assistant Serjeant at Arms] by my Conservative opponent at the 2005 election. This referred to a letter dated 11 December 2003, allegedly sent in a House of Commons envelope officially franked on 11 November 2003. Peter Luff refers to this in his submission to you. [The then Assistant Serjeant at Arms] replied to the complainant. I was not given a copy of the letter, but it did point out the obvious inconsistency in the dates which formed the basis of the complaint.

On the second specific allegation, that of encouraging solicitation of a request, I find this complaint puzzling. It appears by offering an easy way for my constituents to be kept informed of parliamentary, not political activities, I am somehow breaking House rules. My constituents would have to complete a request form, tick a box, put it in an envelope, buy and place a stamp on it and send it to me. This process, I suggest is a very active one on behalf of those who return the slip. Interestingly, and I use this example not to engage in any form of tit-for-tat. I did call up the website of Peter Luff MP the morning I received your letter of complaint (Copy enclosed). As you can see it is a site funded through the Incidental Expense Provision. It has the very same facility on the home page, the ability to request information. It would be an entirely unacceptable situation to have different classes of constituents—those with email who can have a simple reply mechanism funded through IEP, and those who have to use the postal system. Given Mr Luff's complaint about promotion of the Labour Party, which I reject, if your attention is also drawn to the very political nature of the website, from my photocopy that may also be of interest to you.

It is fair to say that I am disappointed Mr Luff and I do not have any form of healthy working relationship, I wish it were otherwise, but I am too busy to engage in any form of personal vendetta. To get a flavour of the nature of this relationship, I have enclosed correspondence sent to the Speaker to seek advice on how best to deal with Mr Luff's desire to "have real fun" by campaigning actively in my constituency.

Mr Luff also alleges that I have used the IEP to promote, in his words, my name and the Labour Party in my annual review. This is frankly ridiculous. It cannot be against the rules of the House to promote or mention the name of the sitting MP, however often, in any report. Yes, I am pictured wearing a red and yellow rosette on a story about my re-election, an event that is of importance in the 2005 Annual Review. It does require a reading aid to actually read what the rosette says. The naked eye cannot make out the words. Interestingly, I modelled my report on that produced by the same publisher, but for a neighbouring colleague ***. As you can see, hers goes much further and is clearly seen with a banner saying Vote Conservative with her re-election story. Has Mr Luff made a complaint about this too?

Given the issues and content of his own website, funded through IEP and that of his own party colleague, I find the complaints made against me to be not only frivolous, vexatious but also highly hypocritical. I do hope you can see my frustration at the nature of the complaint. Mr Luff actually concedes the real motivation behind his action when he says that my activities put "other local political parties and candidates at a severe disadvantage". This shows his primary consideration to be party political and adds weight to my view that his complaint is vexatious.

In conclusion, I do accept my responsibility for sending *** a letter in December 2005 that she should not have received, and I again apologise for this. I hope you will accept this was not intentional and you can be assured this has caused my staff real angst and upset. But on the second allegation, I reject the complaint that I have abused House rules and hope that, through this investigation, a stop can be put to the vexatious and in some cases, fabricated complaints and I will be allowed to get on with my work without future distraction.

20 February 2006  Mr Michael Foster

8.  Letter to the Commissioner from Mr Michael Foster, 1 March 2006

Thank you for your letter of 28 February.

On the specific questions about the communication sent in December, the number is no more than 562. The figure is the current total of those who have contacted me and asked to be kept informed of my work as their MP. The number posted in December may have been slightly less than 562, but I don't have the precise information available.

These people were in effect self-selected. They had specifically requested to be kept updated with my work, as I maintain, ***had originally done. The letter as you know informed people of my change of office address as well as giving details of my surgery times. House of Commons post-paid envelopes were used, they were posted 2nd class.

I consider this communication to be perfectly legitimate use of post-paid envelopes, informing people, who had specifically asked to be kept informed, of my change of address and giving my surgery details.

1 March 2006   Mr Michael Foster

9.  Letter to the Commissioner from Mr Michael Foster, 29 March 2006

Thank you for your letter of the 28th March and for sight of the draft report into the complaint made against me. I have a few observations and comments that I would like the committee and yourself to consider.

On page 5, paragraph 12 my letter of reply has been sent to members of the committee, but not the enclosures. I feel that the content of the Annual Report produced by [Member A], with clear references to "Vote Conservative" and particularly in the light of the comments made by Mr Bird, reference to "Conservative controlled Worcester County Council" needs to be made available to the committee. As does further material which I have enclosed today.[24]

On page 7, paragraph 15, Mr Luff does not deny his complaint is vexatious. Indeed, he confirms what he said in his original complaint, that his motivation for the complaint is political. Commenting on incumbency and reference to a challenger unseating me are made. This should be pointed out to the committee. I also feel that previous complaints, which were entirely fabricated, should be referred to especially as they are mentioned in Mr Luff's original complaint. Mr Luff s motives in making this complaint are also evident in that a journalist was notified of the complaint being made several weeks ago, and if you remember I sought your advice on what comment would be made by your office.

Paragraph 17 refers to my defence of a letter sent on 16th December. It is important to note that the vast majority of those who asked me to contact them had done so to my old office address. Therefore to inform them formally of the change of address was a perfectly legitimate use of House stationery and what many would consider to be good business practice. The calendar was enclosed as a by-product for these particular correspondents. The vast majority of calendars purchased (10,000) were delivered by hand, unaddressed by volunteers.

On page 9, paragraph 25 Mr Bird acknowledges that a degree of judgement is called for. And in this sense, in hindsight, 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.

However, the use of the term "Labour Government" is made as a factual statement. We do not have another Government. Referring to the Government's "investment" is not a party political comment, it is meant as investment in the financial sense. The story relates clearly to this. Similarly, "initiative" is used in the sense of new policy. Had I prefaced "Labour" with an adjective of praise such as "fantastic" or "brilliant" then this would have been party political comment. As an accountant I am by nature a numbers man, and did not appreciate that "investment" would be construed as political comment.

Other members, and this is where [Member A]'s annual report is relevant, clearly have similar views. In her report, she writes;

"[Member A] joins the celebrations with County Council leader [Mr X] when the Conservative controlled Worcester County Council turned down the planning application for a huge rendering plant at Mayfield Farm, Hopwood".

It is a statement of fact that Worcestershire County Council is Conservative controlled. I can't deny this, nor did I think of complaining about it on these grounds. Had [Member A] inserted a comment of praise before the word "Conservative" then this would have been different.

I have also scoured a few other sources to highlight what I mean, and perhaps the committee and the DFA would like to comment on them, in the light of the complaint made against me.

[Member B], website funded through IEP, clearly featuring "Conservative" with the party emblem (enclosed);

[Member C], website funded through IEP, an article "only a united Conservative Party" and repeated use of the word "Conservative" (enclosed);

[Member C], website again, featuring comment on "Labour's culture of complacency on pensions" and repeated use of "Labour" in a critical sense (enclosed);

[Member C], website again, article with numerous mentions of new party leader and criticisms of Labour and Gordon Brown (enclosed);

[Member D], website—identical content (enclosed);

[Member E] ditto;

[Member F] ditto;

[Member G] ditto;

Paragraph 26 makes reference to the use of colour in my annual report. Although not an issue for the DFA, I feel it important to make the point that my report is not in party colours and there is at least as much blue as red. In stark contrast to the report of [Member A] which is bold and bright blue in backdrop, and gives reference to local Conservative Party website and email. Further proof I believe that my report was not designed to promote political party support.

As with previous correspondence, I hope this letter can also be shared with the committee.

29 March 2006  Mr Michael Foster

23   The enclosures are not reported.  Back

24   The enclosures are not reported.  Back

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