Opinion of the Committee
136. Over the past decade or so a steadily increasing
number of MPs have used funds from their allowances to send out
reports on their parliamentary and constituency activities to
their electorate. This is a common concept in other Parliaments
and in local government, and can be argued to have a positive
effect in demystifying Westminster as well as enabling MPs to
give an account of themselves to their constituents.
137. Critical to the legitimacy of using public
funds for these purposes is the absolute requirement that the
material issued must not be party political in content. Policing
such a prohibition clearly entails a degree of subjective judgement,
so it is also essential that MPs should err on the side of caution
when issuing material paid for from public funds.
138. The new Communications Allowance is intended
for pro-active communication with constituents, while the pre-paid
envelopes and stationery are for reactive communication. It was
made clear at the outset that the working of the new allowance
would be reviewed in due course. We have not agreed to the SSRB's
proposal that the IEP should be reduced to take account of the
creation of the Communications Allowance but, instead, have concluded
that the latter allowance should be frozen for three years.
139. We have incorporated that review into our
current work. Use of the Communications Allowance, and before
its creation the use of the IEP for the same purposes, has been
the subject of several complaints to the Parliamentary Commissioner
for Standards. Prior to his leaving office on 31 December 2007,
the former Commissioner Sir Philip Mawer made some general recommendations
for improving the operation of the Allowance.
Drawing on those, the Committee on Standards and Privileges has
also made a number of recommendations for improving the operation
of the Communications Allowance in the light of a full year's
operation. We have
also sought the advice of the House's Department of Resources,
which is responsible for the operation of the allowance and in
particular for approving the content of the publications it funds.
140. In summary, after considering all this evidence,
we have reached the following conclusions, which we propose to
incorporate into revised regulations for the Communications Allowance:
- A closed period of 28 days
before polling day will be introduced in respect of European parliament,
devolved legislature or local government (excluding community
and parish council) elections taking place in a constituency,
during which the MP will be prohibited from issuing proactive
communications funded from the Communications Allowance. The closed
period will not cover by-elections.
- The use of party logos and recognised party campaigning
slogans will not be permitted in House-funded publications. If
a logo is used, this should only be the crowned portcullis, but
its inclusion will not be compulsory.
- Joint publications with other elected office-holders
will be subject to a rule that the entire content of the publication
should satisfy the rules of all the bodies involved in funding
- Photographs which include other elected office-holders
with the MP will be permitted, but captions should be purely factual
and should not actively promote such people.
- While it is not easy for officials to police
the selective use of statistics in publications, nevertheless
statistics whose use overtly promotes a particular political partyfor
example by mentioning a year in which there was a change of governmentare
prima facie politically selective and will not be permitted.
- Surveys may ask questions on national or international
issues but data from local surveys must not be transferred to
national campaigns or used for local party campaigning.
- Extracts from Hansard will be permitted, provided
that the entire publication including the Hansard extract complies
with the prohibition on party political content.
- Members must use their best endeavours to ensure
that distribution arrangements for newsletters do not stray unreasonably
beyond the boundaries of their constituency: while accepting that
non-contiguous post codes can make this inevitable at the margins.
- In revising the rules for the Communications
Allowance we will endeavour to ensure that material compliant
with those rules is not regarded as falling within the scope of
Section 72 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums
Act 2000 (PPERA) and thus constituting 'campaign expenditure'.
- Further work will be undertaken in relation to
websites funded from the Communications Allowance.
- Claims for publications which cost £1,000
or more to produce will only be met if the publication has been
cleared in advance with the Department of Resources. This would
come into effect on 1 April 2009 and the MEC will keep this
limit under review.
- There should be a new process involving senior
Members to resolve any appeal against the decision of the Department
of Resources in individual cases.
141. We recommend that the rules governing
the Communications Allowance be tightened in respect of not publishing
during election periods, not using party logos or other distinguishing
labels, confining distribution to Members' own constituencies
and other matters; and that claims for the costs of production
of any publication costing more than £1,000 will only be
met if it has been cleared in advance with the Department of Resources.
142. We recommend that the Communications
Allowance itself be frozen at the current level for three years
from April 2009 till April 2012 and thereafter the uprating formula
be changed to RPIX.