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2.16 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). She may say that she cannot, and will not, support that allowance, but I guarantee that a large proportion of Opposition Members will not have any problems at all in claiming it, irrespective of the way in which they choose to vote today.

This morning I had the pleasure of giving evidence to the Modernisation Committee with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). We submitted a radical prospectus to assist the Leader of the House and colleagues on the Modernisation Committee in their inquiry into strengthening the role of Back Benchers. As part of that radical prospectus, we drew attention to the fact that the role of a Member of Parliament has changed out of all proportion in the past 20 or 30 years. In fact, when the Leader of the House skilfully bashed into the long grass the dreadful Roy Jenkins report on electoral reform, he drew attention to the figures—the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) will be interested in this—on right hon. and hon. Members’ postage. Those figures were drawn from the House of Commons Post Office itself, and are quite illuminating. In the 1950s, the average number of letters received by a Member of Parliament was in the order of 15 to 30 a week. As we all know, thanks to the delightful person who invented e-mail and thanks to all the other electronic devices, as well as a general increase in demand from constituents, that figure is now between 300 and 500 a week.

There is a resource implication for a Member of Parliament’s communication role. We are communicators, certainly: one of the greatest skills that we need as Members of Parliament is to be able to communicate
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effectively—and, I would say, briefly. In evidence that we cited to the Modernisation Committee this morning, Professor Philip Cowley said:

Professor Lord Norton of Louth, who is a constitutional expert—

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): A great man.

Martin Salter: Indeed— [ Interruption ]and a Conservative— [ Interruption. ] I shall try to make myself heard above the heckling from the Leader of the House. Professor Lord Norton of Louth said in his evidence to the Modernisation Committee:

The problem with the arguments put forward by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead is that she is talking about closing off the supply side. I have some problems with the notion of putting a limit on freepost envelopes. I accept that there were abuses of the system, but that would choke off the supply side. In a representative democracy, surely the people are the boss. They determine how busy we are by the way they relate to us.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman describes a situation that is familiar to me—the increased incoming correspondence to me as a Member of Parliament. I represent the second largest constituency in Britain in population terms. It is a very urban constituency which generates an awful lot of casework. What we are talking about here is something different. The hon. Gentleman is speaking of allowing MPs to engage in reactive communication with constituents, which I am in favour of. That is quite different from proactive communication—unsolicited communication with constituents—for which I think there is little demand.

Martin Salter: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his assiduous work in his constituency, but I draw his attention to some of the figures in the tables—for example, for 2005-06 and other tables showing the published list of expenditure on postage. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), with whom I have discussed the matter in some detail, had a petition regarding the closure of Ashford hospital, a place that I know well, with 25,000 signatures. He needs to react to that. The current system would probably stop him doing that.

The hon. Member for Castle Point was reacting to his constituents. It is fundamentally wrong to describe the allowance as solely for proactive work—solely for self-promotion. What the hon. Member for Castle Point described was doing his job effectively, not allowing constituents to put their names to a round-robin letter or petition about a matter of considerable local concern and letting that disappear into the ether. If Members of Parliament end up having to put a notice in the local paper saying, “Sorry. We’ve busted
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the allowance. We’re not allowed to write to you till next year,” what sort of representative democracy is that?

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I commend to the hon. Gentleman the words of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is in the Chamber, who described the proposals as “vanity publishing” when they were last discussed. Surely it is incumbent upon the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and others who support the proposals to explain to my constituents, who are puzzled, why the Government are seeking to curtail legitimate campaigning with respect to third-party contributions to campaigning between elections, yet expect taxpayers who may not have voted for that Member’s party to support that expenditure—that vanity publishing—with taxpayers’ money?

Martin Salter: If the hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that the activities of the Countryside Alliance—or, in America, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—was legitimate political campaigning, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. That was about intimidation and buying support.

In this technological era, we need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to organised lobby groups. As the technology has moved on, so our response is tracked electronically and very carefully. We know of the website TheyWorkForYou, which tracks responses and how quickly we get back to constituents. More and more, we are living in a goldfish bowl as a result of technology, and the advanced communication techniques used by non-governmental organisations, interest groups, community associations and, yes, political parties. It is wrong that Members of Parliament are expected to do their job, to take the kicks and the brickbats, without the ability to respond in at least a semi-21st century manner.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman mentions the new technology, which has increased the postbag of many MPs—the electronic postbag. Does he accept that responding in this electronic age does not necessarily have the same resource implications in terms of finance, because e-mailing is next to free? There is certainly a staff implication for dealing with that resource, but it will not necessarily always require staff. In some ways it could be argued that our postage bills should be coming down.

Martin Salter: I agree with the hon. Lady. However, many people may e-mail us for information and in response we may mail out a Select Committee report. We could mail it our in electronic form, but I find that my constituents do not thank me when I send them weighty documents that crash their systems, and still welcome old fashioned forms of communication.

Bob Spink: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He argues that, from time to time, issues arise in Members’ constituencies and Members must have the ability to respond. He will know, as he has the figures in front of him, that last year I spent £3,800 on my envelopes, which was slightly less than the average, so I certainly am not a serial abuser of the system. This year I will spend considerably more because of the issue of the LNG plant on Canvey
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Island. I am grateful to the Government for facilitating the good service that I give to my constituents.

Martin Salter: The hon. Gentleman is distinguishing himself in the debate through his contributions. I would go further. We should turn the question round and ask why are focusing on him, or the hon. Member for Spelthorne or sometimes my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—who, I concede, invites attention.

I would focus on hon. Members who are happy to draw a £60,000 salary and appear to have a zero against their postage budget head. I am not sure what the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) is doing on behalf of his constituents. I am not sure what Sinn Fein Members are doing on behalf of their constituents. They seem to be happy to claim every other allowance, but can get through a whole year without writing to a single constituent.

The hon. Member for Castle Point probably will not want to agree with my next point. I have been looking at figures for Members of Parliament who are happy to claim their full salary, are happy to claim the full allowances, but also appear to have a number of outside interests. They are not necessarily giving time to this place. They are not necessarily being conscientious. How can they be, if they are serving three, five, six or, in the case of one hon. Member, 18 different paymasters?

Information dug up by a former Member a couple of years ago shows that Members of Parliament with outside interests participate in only 65 per cent. of Divisions, whereas those of us who are full-time MPs, who spend all our allowances on services for our constituents and who are diligent about what we do—the vast majority of us, in all parts of the House—participate in 91 per cent. of Divisions.

I would take more seriously some of the protestations from Opposition Members if they were prepared to examine the real scandals, such as Members of Parliament moonlighting or drawing salaries and not writing a single letter to their constituents in the course of the year. Perhaps that is what the debate should focus on.

The debate and reports of the Members Estimate Committee were informed by a previous report from the Modernisation Committee to which it was my privilege to contribute. That report, published in June 2004, was entitled “Connecting Parliament with the Public”. The report was informed by a questionnaire that was sent out to all Members of the House of Commons which covered the rules relating to the use of prepaid envelopes and direct mail. What emerged was that as MPs cannot communicate with constituents on matters on which they themselves are statutory consultees, write to their constituents about matters before Parliament, or consult them about the implementation and the effect of legislation on their lives and their communities, it is important to amend the House rules.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead conceded that the definition of a circular communication was nonsense, and that individual letters to 50 people on the same issue will clearly not happen. We have all been breaking the rules. Let us be honest—we have all been
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at it, and I more than most, probably, because it is common sense to do so. It cannot be right that as Members of Parliament we have less ability to engage with our constituents than councillors. Councillors in my constituency and across the country are perfectly within their rights to ask the Member’s secretary to mail out, at council tax payers’ expense, a survey about a particular issue in their area. We cannot do that because we are not allowed to be proactive. We are restricted to replying to people who have written to us.

How have I gone about overcoming that in my constituency? I have got hold of every petition on God’s earth. I have made sure that huge numbers of people have come to me. I have been incredibly busy. I have a substantial database. That gives me the ability, within the rules, to mail out on a range of issues to an awful lot of people, but it is a make-work exercise. What I like about the new rules for the communications allowance is that I will have the ability to be proactive in an appropriate manner. How can it be right for all of us as consultees on post office closures not to be able to communicate that fact through the House of Commons postage system to our electors and communities who may lose a post office? That is a subject on which Opposition Members get extremely aerated, and rightly so.

I can write to 500 people telling them what I have done on their behalf and taking up their case, but only if they contact me first, yet a local councillor can be proactive about such issues. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead is right to say that we need some changes, but they will require resources because, as the hon. Member for Castle Point observed, proactive constituency work may have a resource implication when issues blow up in the constituency at any given point.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: One thing that the hon. Gentleman can never be accused of is hiding his light under a bushel; I think that he is putting in an entry for parliamentarian of the year. Does he agree that we can ameliorate the problem of using surveys simply by removing any questions on voting intentions? I understand that surveys were abused, particularly by Liberal Democrats, who brought the system into disrepute by including questions on voting intention questions, which led to its being curtailed.

Martin Salter: The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful, as I have seen many examples of Conservative literature—I have some here—which are clearly in breach of the rules, and have sought voting intentions. Yes, the Lib Dems are famous for it, but no party is without guilt. I can honestly say that in the survey work that I have done, using the incidental expenses provision—the resources of the House of Commons— I have never sought to establish party political affiliation. In fact, some general surveys are deeply suspect. I hope that the Members Estimate Committee will take cognisance of that fact, and of the fact that they can be cross-referenced with political canvass returns.

We need the right to be proactive and to gauge opinion on issues such as hospital closures and massive planning cases, as my new best friend, the hon. Member for Castle Point has highlighted, but general
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requests for attitudes, which can be put into a computer system to see whether someone might be classified as a swing voter, are an abuse of the parliamentary system, and we have rules of procedure to deal with that.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman says that the need to communicate and take up issues through petitions and so forth may lead to resource increases, but that need not be the case. For example, we are both campaigning on First Great Western rail services in our constituencies. Last year I had a 2,500-signature petition on that issue, and 900 signatures came through the website. Would not it be helpful if the House accepted e-petitions, so that we could reduce the cost of responding to our constituents? I hope that the Procedure Committee will make that change.

Martin Salter: I recommend that the right hon. Lady read the excellent evidence given today by myself and the hon. Member for Buckingham to the Modernisation Committee, which, sadly, she was not there to hear. If she had found the time to attend—she was obviously sending letters to her constituents—she would have heard us make the case for a proper petition process in this place. I also note that, according to page 5 of the report, the provisions that can be funded from the new communications allowance include e-petitions and e-communications, which represent an increasing element of our casework.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making a forceful and powerful speech. However, I suggest that we need not be shy about this. The amount of constituency correspondence and the number of single issue campaigns instigated within our constituencies are inexorably on the increase, and there will inevitably be a cost attached, by whatever means we respond to them. Let me remind him of what I said in evidence this morning, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead was unable to hear: despite all the people who e-mail us, we have to be conscious that there are still substantial numbers of people who will continue to write through the pigeon post, and who deserve every bit as timeous a reply as the e-mail enthusiasts. That costs, and we should say so.

Martin Salter: I could not agree more. In fact, as a renowned Luddite myself, I take some pleasure in ensuring that I respond, usually on the basis of need but certainly in date order, to Mrs. Miggins with her spidery writing, who is every bit as entitled to my attention as someone—we all have these people among those we represent, sadly—who e-mails an hour and a half after their original e-mail, usually at 4 in the morning, to ask why we have not replied. [ Interruption. ] From Estonia, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound). He has a big personal vote there.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead protested a bit too much with her array of soundbites on what a dreadful day for democracy the approval of this allowance would be. Any abuse of parliamentary facilities is to be regretted, including the abuse of luncheon clubs and dining facilities. I understand that
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we are to hear more about that in weeks to come, and there could be an awful lot of humble pie eaten on the Conservative Benches.

Some Members of Parliament are very assiduous in their correspondence, and some are not. There is a massive range in the amounts of money spent on postage. Just for the record, last year I came in at £5,500—well within the average. Some Members made it up to £37,000, while many struggled to make £300 or £400. There is no golden rule as to how we do our job. Different constituencies have different demands, and different issues will bubble up. This set of proposals will limit the activities of some of the high spenders; it is not, as Opposition Members suggest, about mis-spenders. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, we do not have to be shy about this. People respond to our reaching out, and to good, non-partisan, informative communication. We should welcome our ability to compete on equal terms with those—sometimes lobby groups, certainly local councillors—who have more resources at their disposal than we do.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the website and its sister site list data on the length of time that people on its system take to respond to letters? Is he further aware that of the worst 50 MPs in terms of slowness of response, most are Labour Members? Conservative Members fear that MPs of whatever party who are not assiduous will be given £10,000 to spend proactively, through their staff, on propaganda that they will send out to give a misleading sense of their activities when they are not providing the basic services for their constituents that the hon. Gentleman so passionately espouses.

Martin Salter: I have two points in response to that rather poor intervention. First, as we have heard, gives a very inaccurate representation of people’s contributions to the work of Parliament. A speech is recorded with the same validity as an intervention. Many of us with relatively high postage bills are assiduous in our correspondence with Ministers when taking up issues on behalf of our constituents, and get a lot more information as a result of writing letters and presenting an argument than we ever will from a parliamentary question. One can do both, but does not indicate in the slightest how assiduous a Member has been in corresponding with a Minister or a Department on a specific issue.

Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that one can drive a coach and horses through these rules, I remind him that they were drawn up on a unanimous basis by the Members Estimate Committee, with input from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. Which part of them would he change?

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