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The point about incumbency is a potent one. People fear that the proposal would simply
reinforce incumbency. Clearly, it is a given that it reinforces incumbency, but the question is whether it should do that in order to allow Members to do their job more effectively. Ones views on that will be almost entirely coloured by whether one is a Member of the House who uses the resources or a prospective candidate who does not have such access.
I reject, however, the claims made by some Conservative Members of an easy equivalence between this and the abuse of funding in party political campaigning reflected by the massive influx of funds from third parties or central offices into local constituencies, particularly marginal ones, between elections. That is wrong, and I hope that we will address that in our debates on party funding. The issue under discussion, however, has nothing to do with that. There is no equivalence at all. One can argue cogently against the provision without accepting for one moment such off-balance-sheet party funding to local parties, which is against the spirit of our election law.
Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman has just argued against third party funding to allow those in opposition to campaign against a sitting MP, but incumbent MPs haveto pick a number out of the air£100,000-worth of state support to be seen to be performing their role, and their members of staff work with constituents. MPs have an enormous advantage. In comparison with the sums under discussion, the sums of money guided to target seats by other parties are minuscule. It is right and proper in a democracy that the activities of those who want to challenge incumbent MPs can be funded.
Mr. Heath: I find it difficult to understand the hon. Gentlemans argument, because I do not see any campaign funding going to hon. Members to enable them to do their job as MPs. I do not see the people who work in my office, whom he includes in his figure, as campaigning when they answer letters about the Child Support Agency or the Rural Payments Agency. I do not see the provision of that office and my nine surgeries each month as campaigning opportunities, and I hope that he does not do so either. I hope that, if he really thinks about it, he will not see the money that goes to support Members of Parliament to do their job as campaigning money. Under the rules, we are not allowed to campaign using the funds available. If this money is granted by the House, one hopes that the reputations of those Members who use it will be enhanced, although, in some instances, I suspect that that will not be the case. To that extent only, it is money used in campaigning. It cannot be used, however, for openly party political purposes.
I would have liked the draft guidance to be before the House, so that we could have a clear idea of how the rules will be applied. I would have liked clear assurances that the rules will be applied much more stringently than they are at present. I notice the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee nodding vigorously at that point, because he and I have experience of trying to police such matters in the House.
I want to draw attention to one thing that is allowed, and one thing that is not allowed. According to paragraph 12 of the report, hon. Members will be able to use the communications allowance to meet the cost of questionnaires and surveys. According to paragraph 14, however, the allowance cannot be used to meet the cost of petitions, surveys or questionnaires if they are
associated principally with national campaigning or local elections.
It is naive to a high degree to believe that the questionnaires and surveys issued will not somehow tie in with national campaigning issues for every Member who uses the money to meet that cost. If a party is running a massive campaign on health service cuts, for example, a survey that may relate to local health service provision will nevertheless tie in with that. If we are to allow that sort of material, which is questionable, let us openly accept that within a national campaigning profile its use will be ambiguous.
Lastly, some Labour Members have suggested that any Member who votes against the allowance this eveningbecause they are not satisfied with the details or even the principle of itwould be hypocritical if they subsequently used any of it. That is simply nonsense, and a misreading of what the House is for. We take decisions, express our opinions and vote. Once the matter has been voted on, however, individual Members, whether they thought a proposal was a good idea or not, have a duty to their constituents to use the funds available. [Laughter.] I make the point in all seriousness. I might disagree with a lot of provisions. I sometimes vote against them and do not, if they would be to my personal advantage, take them. For instance, I voted against the pension enhancement, and refused to take it. I know that many Members voted against it and still took it. This issue, however, does not relate to my or any other Members personal position, but to the service that will be provided to constituents. Therefore, I hope that accusations of hypocrisy will not be made against hon. Members who choose to vote against the proposal today.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): To be consistent, should not the hon. Gentleman argue that a Member of Parliament who votes against an extra £10,000 to communicate with his constituents, but who uses it once it is granted, is not fulfilling the obligation to which he refers?
Not if, as I believe, the present arrangements for allowances, with a few minor changes in the rules on how they can be used, which we have discussed, allow for appropriate communication with the electorate. The House will either accept or reject the package. Many of my hon. Friends will vote for it, and many will vote against it. That is a decision for them, as it is for each Member. We work within the allowances system that we have in order to provide the best service for our constituents. There are better ways of achieving the objective, which I share with the Leader of the House, of allowing better communication with our electorate. My personal opinion is that the proposal is
not the right way. I do not encourage others to share that view, but this has been a useful debate, and I look forward to the result with interest.
I can tell the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) that some of us will have to claim under the communications allowance for activities that we are undertaking at present and which are paid for by the incidental expenses provision. Without wishing to spend any more money, we will have to claim under the communications allowance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there is no implication of hypocrisy.
I join in the chorus of approval welcoming back the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping). At a time of preservation, conservation and recycling, it is marvellous to see him back in the post that he occupied in the 1997-2001 Parliament.
We debate these allowances for ourselves after spending four days debating the Budget, which involved very tough decisions on public expenditure for some important public services, including education and the Home Office. People outside the House will want us to make a very good case for increased public expenditure on our services, given the background of the Budget debate.
When he introduced the debate, the Leader of the House used the argument about disconnect to support the communication allowance. That argument can be stood on its head: we could argue perfectly well that it is our voting for more money for ourselves in this way that adds to, rather than solves, the problem of disconnect. One of the jobs of the House is to examine claims for increased expenditure. We are sent here to see how money extracted from constituents is spent. When we are the conduit for that increased expenditure, we need to be even more vigilant and demand an even higher standard of proof.
The motion before us is the next stage in a debate that began on 1 November, in which a number of those present today took part. When we considered the matter then, it was on a motion from the Leader of the House, and no document had been brought forward. The idea had not been examined by any Select Committee or by the independent outside body charged with determining our allowances. The SSRB is, at this very moment, looking at our salaries and allowances. In a passing reference in the previous debate, the Leader of the House said:
I have also kept the Senior Salaries Review Body in touch with what is proposed.[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 312.]
With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that is precisely the wrong way round: the SSRB ought to be keeping him in touch with what is proposed. What is the purpose of having an independent body to make recommendations about our allowances ifunilaterally, and before its report is publishedwe help ourselves to higher allowances? When I intervened on him, the Leader of the House said that the proposed
allowance is a new one. That is true, but a lot of the activity that it subsumes is catered for already. The right hon. Gentleman would have been on much better ground if we had waited for the SSRBs recommendations and come forward with a much more robust case than the one that he presented this afternoon.
There is another reason why I believe it injudicious to proceed at this moment. As various hon. Members have noted, a fortnight ago Sir Haydn Phillips published his recommendations on party funding, with no agreement having been reached between the parties. There are a number of outstanding issues, one of which is a proposal for a new capone that does not exist at presenton what can be spent locally by a political party. That is of particular relevance where that local party is challenging an incumbent, and I quote what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said in our earlier debate:
Were I a candidate for Parliament running against an incumbent who was using public funds to publish and distribute what looks to most people like campaign literature, I would be mightily upset.[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 350.]
At the very moment that the Government are seeking consensus with the Opposition parties on a new limit on what a prospective candidate can spend, they are also proposing to increase what the incumbent can spend without having to raise the money. The Leader of the House must realise that what is being proposed today will make it more difficult to secure the consensus on party funding that I know he wants.
I shall be brief, as I know that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) wants to contribute to the date. On a more positive note, I welcome the decision to cap the value of pre-paid envelopes and other stationery. With an average spend of £3,500, £7,000 leaves a substantial amount of head room for the majority of MPs. I hope that we can stick at that level for some time. I assume that, as the cost of postage rises, the number of free envelopes to which we are entitled will fall.
We are told in paragraph 12 of the motion that detailed rules will follow in a new, separate and comprehensive booklet, and I welcome that. At the moment, the advice is all over the placein the stationery catalogue, in the Green Book, in leaflets and guidance notes issued by the Serjeant at Arms Department and on that Departments intranet site. I welcome the prospect of one, comprehensive publication telling us exactly what we can and cannot do.
If invited, the Standards and Privileges Committee stands ready to adviseas does the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administrationon the more detailed guidance to which the motion refers. I notice that we are not included in paragraph 12, but my Committee and the Commissioner have to interpret the
rules and so would be more than happy to provide some advice on their composition.
As various hon. Members noted, there has been a steady stream of complaints that rules have been broken in respect of postage and the IEP. We have reported on four cases during this Parliament, and the Commissioner has dealt with many more. The rules lack clarity; they are complex and they overlap. In my Committees 10th report, we noted that
the significant differences of interpretation amongst Members as to the acceptable limits of party-related material that can properly be included in IEP funded material.
What is proposed today is a considerable relaxation of what can legitimately be funded. I hope that that will be accompanied by a firm restatement of the boundary between parliamentary and party political activity, with an assertion that the new boundary should be rigorously policed. That seems to me to be an appropriate trade-off.
Finally, I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expendituresomething that has not been mentioned much in the debateand the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that can undermine Parliaments legitimacy. My view remains that if we are to have a communication allowance as proposed, a far stronger case for it needs to be made than we have heard so far. As no compelling case has been made to justify an increase of £6 million in public expenditure, I propose to vote against it.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) kept his remarks brief. I believe that someone else wishes to speak so I, too, will try to be brief.
As a Member of Parliament, I believe that communication is incredibly important. As a former marketing manager, perhaps I know more than many the benefits of good communication. Those of us who oppose the allowance do not say that ensuring that we are in touch with our constituents, reporting back and making sure that people in our constituencies are engaged in politics are not important parts of a Member of Parliaments job. Far from it. My problem is the cost that the taxpayer will incur. Through interventions, I have already expressed my disappointment that the communications allowance will cost an extra £6 million, with a perhaps an additional £1 million in increased postage costs. That means that the taxpayer must bear the brunt of an additional £7 million.
Good communication with constituents does not always have to be costly. We spoke earlier about technology and leaps forward through e-mail communication and websites, which are an especially cost-effective way of keeping in touch with people. The communications allowance can be used for websites, but my website, for which I personally pay, costs only about £15 a month. Basic technology hardly costs a huge amount these days.
Of course, local visits, which Members of Parliament often make on Fridays and the weekends are a way of communicating face to face with constituents. Dare I say it?going back to the good old days of knocking
on doors to communicate directly with individuals is perhaps one of the most potent ways of engaging people in politics. There is a role for leaflets, too. As a Liberal Democrat, I would say that. I have spent many a happy hour delivering leaflets and I shall do much more of that in the next few weeks. I enjoy doing itit is good exercise. However, I would argue that political parties have an important role to play in funding political leaflets.
Many of us send out an annual report funded from our parliamentary expenses. However, it is not right to increase the money by £10,000 when adequate provision is already made in our incidental expenses provision. We do not need to increase that further. We should consider the cases of Members who have problems with their office rent costs, which means that they cannot use their current expenses for incidental provision, but a total blanket increase of £7 million, even for those who do not suffer the problem, is excessive. We do not need that.
Let us consider timing. The report suggests that there is a good case for combining the communications allowance with the allocation for pre-paid stationery in one allowance. However, it also states that although that appears attractive in the long term, the financial and administrative difficulties would delay unduly the introduction of the communications allowance. What is the rush? The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned the SSRB review. Why could we not let it reach a conclusion about the matter? Why do we need to rush the matter through? Some hon. Members may suggest that a forthcoming general election is a factor.
Mr. Straw: The debate has been interesting, notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that it is fine to vote one way and then take the money regardless. Some of us will monitor that with interest. I understand his point, but I believe that there will be a slightly larger take-up if the motion is approved than the numbers going through the Lobby will suggest.
Mr. Straw: It shows that more hon. Members may think that it is right than are willing to put their heads above the parapet. If they genuinely believed that it was a bad idea, they would not take the allowance. I believe that it is right and I would not have introduced it if I did not.
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