Select Committee on Members Estimate Committee Third Report

5  Communicating with constituents and the public

The current system

131.  Since 1 April 2007 Members have been able to spend up to £10,000 a year on communicating with constituents about parliamentary business, for example, through newsletters, annual reports and websites. The new allowance was approved by the House on 28 March 2007 following a report by the Members Estimate Committee.[31] At the same time a new limit of £7,000 was imposed on the quantity of pre-paid envelopes and House stationery which Members can use. The Communications Allowance was uprated to £10,400 in line with the retail price index on 1 April 2008.

132.  In 2007-08, 594 Members claimed against the allowance, amounting to over £4 million. Most expenditure is on newsletters and to a lesser extent websites. Some 588 newsletters and other publications were submitted to the Department of Resources for review in advance of distribution and 308 of these required some amendment to comply with the rules. Claims were made by Members for reimbursement in relation to 939 other publications which had not been shown to the Department of Resources in advance. Just fewer than 40% of all publications were cleared with the Department of Resources in advance.

The Standards and Privileges Committee's recommendations

133.  Use of the Communications Allowance has been the subject of several complaints to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Following a general report from the outgoing Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards and Privileges has made a number of recommendations for improving the operation of the Communications Allowance in the light of a full year's operation.[32]

SSRB proposals

134.  The SSRB made three proposals concerning the Communications Allowance:

Views expressed by Members

135.  The main views expressed to us by Members were:

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.[35] 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.[36] 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 it.
  • 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 party—for example by mentioning a year in which there was a change of government—are 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.

31   Members Estimate Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Communications Allowance, HC 319. Back

32   See Appendix 4. Back

33   para 5.34. Back

34   Cm 7270-I, para 5.34. Back

35   Standards and Privileges Committee, Third Report of Session 2007-08, Publications funded from the Communications Allowance, HC 232. Back

36   See Appendix 4. Back

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