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I was specifically referring to the sister site, which measures the length of time that Members take to respond to letters, and which gives a fairly dismal reading for a number of Members who fail to respond properly to their constituents in terms of basic written communication. The fear is that people like that will be given this £10,000 to spend, through their
staff, on propaganda, which is a far cry from using it for the positive purposes that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Martin Salter: I wish the hon. Gentleman could make his mind up: he is either attacking hon. Members who do not use the postage, or blaming those who use the postage too much. He cannot have it both ways.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is now in the Chamber, as it enables me to cite an annual report that has been circulating in the borough of Reading. It helps us to understand why the right hon. Member for Maidenhead was circumspect in her answer about the use of party logos. As we can see, this is a report from Rob Wilson, MP and it includes the Conservative party logo of Reading, East Conservatives and is funded through the incidental expenses provision
Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman should be made aware that this was all checked out and run through the correct departments. Also, I have a confirmatory e-mail from the department, which confirms that the discreet use of logos is allowed on parliamentary reports. I therefore expect an immediate retraction and an apology.
Martin Salter: I think then that we need to consider the promotion of council candidates within annual reports. I think there is an issue[Hon. Members: Withdraw.]about putting out parliamentary reports during election periods. I am very happy to concede that if the hon. Gentleman has had his annual report checked out, that is fine, but I would question as a matter of principle whether it is right for MPs to circulate annual reports, featuring pictures of councillors or council candidates, during an election period. I think that that is something that the Members Estimate Committee should address. It is certainly something that I have always been very careful to avoid.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not normal convention and good manners that when a Member cites another Member in respect of contentious issues, they should give the hon. Member to whom they are referring reasonable notice of that fact before the debate?
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
It is always difficult to know exactly what is going to come up in a debate. Any hon. Member addressing the House is entirely responsible for the words he uses and the matters he raises. As far as I am concerned, nothing unparliamentary was said in those last remarks. I would say, however, that when we start to particularise and identify individual
Members in a debate, there is a danger of going too far, so I suggest that it is better to keep our remarks more general.
Martin Salter: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I read it into the record that I was very careful not to name any hon. Members to whom I had failed to give advance notice unless they were in the Chamber The hon. Member for Reading, East came into the Chamber.
To conclude, the arguments against the communications allowance are, to say the least, confused and contradictory. The evidence that we need the tools to do the job properly is overwhelming and high spenders are going to be limited. Members would do well to reflect on the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, which said:
Voters continue to respect their local MPs and much of the effective communication of what Parliament does, especially at the local level and in the local media, is currently through the constituency member. The level of informed, transparent and engaged democracy that any citizen of the 21(st) century has a right to expect, is, of necessity, comparatively expensive. Cut-price democracy will never represent much of a bargain.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for introducing this short debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who it is great to see back in the post that he previously occupied. He always did a wonderful job, particularly on pre-recess debates, and it is good that he will have the opportunity to exercise his skills again so soon in his revised career. I am sure it will thrill him.
I shall deal with the provisions before us in ascending order of controversy. First is the proposal to appoint Sir Graham Bright as managing trustee of the parliamentary contributory pension fund. I do not believe that any Member will wish to disagree with that. I enter just one caveat; it does not relate to Sir Graham. I thought that we had established a little while ago as a matter of protocolit has been happening in statutory instruments Committees when dealing with the confirmation of an appointmentthat it is appropriate to circulate to those who will make the decision a curriculum vitae of the individual concerned. We should not assume that everybody knows the person. In this instance, the explanatory notes might have provided a brief resumé of Sir Graham Brights career in order to allow Members to take an informed decision. Had that happened, I am sure that they would have come to the view that I and the rest of the House sharethat he will be an admirable member of the pension fund panel.
On Select Committee reports and the period of embargo, I have no problem with changing the rules if that is the wish of Select Committees. I hope, however, that it will not become normal practice to extend
the period of embargo, because that runs the risk of Select Committees falling into the same trap that Ministers so often fall intoof briefing before a report is published to an inappropriate extent. I can envisage circumstances in which a longer period of embargo may be sensible, but I hope that it will not be the norm.
On notice of questions, I wholly welcome what has been done to normalise, as it were, the ability to table questions in recess. I am still not reconciled to the long summer recess and I still want to see changes to our political calendar to enable us to sit more regularly and therefore avoid being unable for a quarter of the year to hold the Government to account. However, given that we have what we have, it is right to be able to table questions. I would like to see it extended and I believe that the Leader of the House opened the door to that.
There is a quid pro quo, and I suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that they need to exercise more care about their prolixity in putting down questions. We all know the reality: often it is not Members but their researchers who think up jolly good questions in abundance. I am not sure that having so many questions and so few answers of any profundity necessarily improves understanding of what the Government are doing. Perhaps an element of self-denying ordinance might be helpful.
John Bercow: I agree that a self-denying ordinance would be a good idea so that literally reams upon reams upon reams of written questions are not tabled. To some extent, it is a matter for Members to exercise a degree of control over the operation of their own offices, but as a self-confessed technophobe who is seeking late in life to overcome this condition, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that there are any technological means by which one could prevent the onward transmission of huge quantities of material, of which a Member may not be aware? In other words, are there not blocks that one could operate?
Mr. Heath: I am sure that there are, but I am wary of suggesting that that should be the case because there are sometimes very good reasons why a number of questions need to be tabled. What I am really appealing to is the good sense of Members to realise that there are limits in tabling questions, but nevertheless to welcome the opportunity to table them. Of course, when one was required to put down a question by going to the Table Office with ones hand-scrawled note and signature at the bottom, that was itself a limiting factor, which we have now moved away from.
I want to move on to the contentious issue of the communications allowance. I believe that Members on both sides of the House will have a free vote on the motion, as we always do on House matters, and I have had no indication of how my right hon. and hon. Friends intend to vote. We have to be extremely careful when we are seen by those outside to be awarding ourselves yet another allowance of substantial size without any clear indication of how it is to be spent, or of how it will be of advantage to our constituents rather than to us as incumbents in parliamentary seats.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned that the
imbalance between the cost of providing office space in different constituencies was not reflected in the present allowance structure. That needs to be addressed, as it curtails the amount of money available to some hon. Members in pursuing their constituency or parliamentary work, simply because so much of their budget is pre-empted by office accommodation costs that they cannot avoid.
The proposed communications allowance represents a significant sum of money. The last time we discussed the matter, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire was absolutely right to mention the amount of £6 million; as we have heard, the Leader of the House pooh-poohed her suggestion that it would be anything like that amount. My hon. Friend has repeated today that it is to be £6 million, and the Leader of the House has invited us to do some elementary arithmetic, apparently without having noticed that £6 million is the discounted figure. It is the figure associated with the normal take-up of allowances and is therefore the figure that the taxpayer is likely to have to stump up.
The rulesand how they are appliedare key to many peoples view of how the money is to be spent. There is a nagging suspicion among many of us that the proposal is partly a reaction to the massive overspend on postage by certain Members. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of how some of the figures mentioned in relation to the spending on postage by individual Members can possibly be reconciled with the present rules. Obviously it must be possible; otherwise, the Fees Office and the Serjeant at Arms would have investigated, and there would have been consequences. I find it difficult to understand, however.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) argued persuasively for better communication with our constituents. He clearly uses the rules in order to provide such communication, and he revealed that his postage costs were about £5,500. If he can give the kind of service that he described for that figure, it is hard to understand how a multiple of six or seven times that amount can still be within the rules. I am not accusing any hon. Members of abusing the rules. I am simply saying that I cannot understand how such amounts can be reached.
While we are talking about the rules, I want to say clearly to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson)who has scuttled from the Chamber because he knew that I was going to bring this matter upthat I found his intervention on the hon. Member for Reading, West offensive in the extreme. The clear implication of what he said was that the Liberal Democrats were sending out surveys on voting intentions at the taxpayers expense, but I know of no instances of that being done. It would be against the rules, and there would have been complaints if it had been done
Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has a neighbouring constituency to mine, and he has just spoken to me. Unfortunately, there has been some confusion, because some constituents have come to see him, and have only just realised that I am their Member of Parliament. So he has gone outside to address a matter that has just arisen. There is therefore a legitimate and genuine reason why he has left the Chamber, and I felt that it was important to clarify for the record that he had not just scuttled way, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
Mr. Heath: I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said. Perhaps when the hon. Member for Peterborough returns he will make an apology, just as he demanded from others, for what the Liberal Democrats consider to be the offensive suggestion that we have repeatedly abused the present system, apparently with impunity. I know of no such instances, and if the hon. Gentleman has evidence, he should make an application to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must repeat, or at least touch on, what I said earlier. It would be sensible if we now concentrated on the main matter before the House and stopped personalising and being quite so anecdotal.
Mr. Heath: I entirely agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly try to ensure that that is the case, but I am not prepared to allow accusations to be made against my colleagues without the opportunity of a response and, I hope, of an apology from the Member concerned if he cannot substantiate the claims that he made.
I shall move on to the proposed new rules. It is unfortunate that paragraph 18 of the report by the Members Estimate Committee mentions a separate, comprehensive booklet without providing a draft of such a booklet, because that is key to our understanding of how the rules will work. In an intervention on the Leader of the House, I referred to the limit on pre-paid envelopes. It is part of the quid pro quo that there will be a communications allowance, but there will also be a limit on the use of pre-paid envelopes, never mind the fact that the vast majority of Members get nowhere near to the present limitincluding the hon. Member for Reading, West, who is well below the limitand that there would therefore be no change in their behaviour. That means that we shall effectively be getting £10,000 extra, with no balancing factor.
It is also extraordinary that, if we reach the new limit on pre-paid envelopes, we shall still be able to use the taxpayers money to pay for more envelopes and stamps,
to achieve exactly the same result. This is a Humpty-Dumpty situation in which the words mean exactly what we want them to mean. We are setting a limit, but it is a limit that will apply only if there happens to be a pre-paid frank on the envelope. Otherwise, we can use the taxpayers money as much as we want within the other limits
Mr. Heath: Yes, we can, but the proposals are supposed to provide a balance and a rationale for increasing our expenditure by a further £10,000 per Member£6 million in allin order to put the balance into effect.
Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend mentioned that this is apparently a cap, but in real terms for most Members it will represent an increase in what they are able to spend on stamps. The booklet says that the proposals will limit annual expenditure to a maximum of £4 million, but I am not sure who has done the maths on that. If we multiply £7,000 by 646, we get a figure of just over £4.5 million, so perhaps £4 million is a more accurate estimate of what would be spent, if we base it on people spending up to 90 per cent. of the allowance. If we were to spend £4 million as opposed to £3 million, that would represent a 33 per cent. increase in postage costs, apparently in a bid to try to clamp down on some of the worst abuses or overspends. This is just another example of additional money being put forward that the taxpayer is going to have to fund.
Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. I would like to make a countervailing point, however. The hon. Member for Reading, West made the perfectly proper point that certain things that are against the rules at the moment ought to be within the rules. The point was also made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When we want to respond properly to petitions or large round robins, or when we want to draw the attention of our constituents to something that is likely to have a profound effect on them, we do not have the freedoms that I enjoyed, for example, when I was the member of Somerset county council for Frome, North. I could send a letter round to my constituents then, but I cannot do so now unless I pay for it myself and print it on the Reisograph. If I want to include in it a question about voting intentionsplease will the hon. Member for Peterborough note thisI am perfectly entitled to do so.
Mr. Graham Stuart: Do not many Members fear that the new system will see an increase in the number of stamps used? Do not they also fear that the propaganda allowance of £10,000 will have a corrosive effect on democracy, because incumbents will have access to media that their opponents can never have, thereby further reinforcing incumbency? The Labour party is trying to force the proposal through so that further propaganda can be provided for those who are currently failing to deliver a suitable service to constituents.
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