Select Committee on Members Estimate Committee Third Report


Appendix 4: Paper by the Committee on Standards and Privileges

Note for the Members' Estimate Committee on the former Commissioner's proposals on Publications funded from the Communications Allowance

Introduction

1.  In its Third Report of the current Session (HC 232), published in January 2008, the Committee published a memorandum from the former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards summarising some of the issues that had arisen to date in relation to complaints relating to publications funded from the Communications Allowance (CA) (or in previous financial years, the Incidental Expenses Provision (IEP)). The then Commissioner did so because the MEC had said ahead of the introduction of the CA on April 1 2007 that it planned to review the rules relating to the Allowance a year or so after its introduction.

2.  The Committee published the Commissioner's proposals without comment on their substance, as a contribution to the wider debate on the CA. This paper sets out, for the benefit of the MEC in the context of the current allowances review, the Committee's own views on those proposals, and should be read in conjunction with the Commissioner's memorandum.

3.  The former Commissioner's recommendations can be grouped under four broad headings: timing of publication; content of publications; scope of distribution; and the availability of guidance and advice.

Timing of publication

4.  The Commissioner made four specific recommendations on the timing of publication:

(a)  A closed period should be introduced in respect to a European Parliament, devolved legislature or local government (excluding community and parish council) election during which Members would be prohibited from proactive written communication with constituents funded from the CA (paragraph 18);

(b)  The closed period should apply also in the case of by-elections to the afore-mentioned bodies (paragraph 18);

(c)  The closed period should be defined by reference to the relevant regulatory period for candidates' election expenses;

(d)  The closed or prohibited period should cover all forms of Communications Allowance funded written material, not just newsletters, except for material of a purely factual nature (paragraph 18).

5.  The Committee supports the principle of a closed period ahead of periodic elections to the European Parliament and devolved legislatures, and local authorities other than community and parish councils, which affect the constituency concerned. Although CA-funded material is not supposed to include overt party political matter, the Committee considers that its mere circulation is likely to enhance the public profile of the party of the Member concerned, and that this justifies restrictions on its circulation at these times.

6.  As to the duration of any such closed period, the Committee agrees with the Commissioner that this should be both easily understood, and no longer than strictly necessary. The Committee takes the view that the simplest answer would be to settle on a common fixed period for all elections, and recommends 28 calendar days.

7.  However, before deciding to recommend a closed period, the MEC will want to consider some of the practical implications. Although the dates of periodic elections are for the most part known well in advance, publications such as annual reports typically have quite long lead times, and commercial distributors on occasion change previously agreed distribution dates for operational reasons. Members must also ensure that volunteers respect any closed period.

8.  The Committee has considered carefully whether there should be a similar closed period for by elections affecting a Member's constituency. It has concluded that this would be unnecessarily restrictive.

9.  As to the range of material to which any closed period should apply, the Committee agrees with the Commissioner that this should include all material that is other than purely factual, including newsletters, leaflets and surveys.

Content of publications

10.  The Commissioner made five specific recommendations on the content of publications:

(e)  The use of party logos and party campaigning strap-lines should not be permitted in House-funded publications (paragraphs 28 and 30);

(f)  If the House wishes to continue to allow party logos, the circumstances in which they are to be permitted should be much more precisely defined (paragraphs 29 and 30);

(g)  Whether or not party logos continue to be permitted, publications funded from the CA should prominently carry the crowned portcullis emblem (paragraph 30);

(i)  In the longer term once the House's rules have been revised the Committee may wish to consider ways of ensuring that material compliant with those rules is not regarded as falling within the scope of section 72 of PPERA and thus constituting "campaign expenditure" (paragraphs 38-39);

(j)  (ii) The need to exercise care in relation to the inclusion of photographs of other elected representatives and generalised statements or selective use of statistics promoting a particular political party (paragraph 32).

11.  The Committee considers that CA-funded material should as a matter of principle be readily distinguishable in its appearance and content from material produced by and on behalf of political parties and their members.

12.  The Committee recognises that Members' political affiliations are a matter of public record, and have an important place in both the political structure of the House, and the wider democratic process. Nonetheless, a member serves in the House as a representative of all his or her constituents, not just those who voted for them, and CA-funded material should reflect this. The majority view on the Committee is that it is legitimate in CA-funded material to refer to a Member's political affiliation in a discreet and proportionate way.

13.  A majority of the Committee supports the prominent use of the traditional green crowned Portcullis, particularly in the heading of CA-funded newsletters and reports, as a clear and unambiguous demonstration of the Parliamentary nature of the publication. A majority also supports the prohibition in CA-funded publications of the use of both party symbols and party straplines (statements and slogans likely to be identified by the readers as clearly associated with a specific political party).

14.  The Committee does not regard it as practicable to prohibit the use of colours associated with particular parties. However, reflecting the over-riding principle set out at paragraph 11, their use should be both proportionate and discreet and the document overall should be clearly distinguishable by its appearance from party material.

15.  The Committee recognises that there are fine judgements to be made at the margin on the content of CA-funded publications if they are to avoid allegations of political content. It agrees with the Commissioner over the need to exercise care in relation to the inclusion of photographs of other elected representatives in circumstances where the purpose might be felt to benefit their political profile rather than to demonstrate aspects of the Member's parliamentary work, and over generalised statements, or selective use of statistics, promoting a particularly party, which do not primarily illustrate or relate to the work of the Member. On the other hand, a vital function of Members is to promote their constituents' interests and to hold the Government to account, and Members must be able to include in newsletters and reports material, such as relevant quotations from Hansard, which demonstrates how they have personally carried out these functions.

16.  The Committee supports the Commissioner's proposal for ensuring that CA-funded material fully compliant with the House's rules falls outside the scope of section 72 of PPERA, and does not fall to be treated as "campaign expenditure". The purpose of such material is restricted to the promotion of purely parliamentary activity, and this purpose will be obscured if there is any question of material fully compliant with the rules of the House being seen as having a party dimension.

Scope of distribution

17.  The Commissioner made one specific recommendation:

(i)  the need to ensure that distribution arrangements for newsletters are focused so far as possible on a Member's own constituents and do not stray unreasonably beyond the boundaries of the Member's constituency (paragraph 20);

18.  The Committee agrees with the Commissioner that distribution arrangements for newsletters and other publications should be focussed as far as possible on a Member's own constituents and should not stray unreasonably beyond the boundaries of a Member's own constituency.

Advice and guidelines

19.  The Commissioner made four specific recommendations:

(j)  When the guidance on the CA is next revised, attention should be drawn to:

(i)  the need to ensure that distribution arrangements for newsletters are focused so far as possible on a Member's own constituents and do not stray unreasonably beyond the boundaries of the Member's constituency (paragraph 20);

(ii)  the need to exercise care in relation to the inclusion of photographs of other elected representatives and generalised statements or selective use of statistics promoting a particular political party (paragraph 32);

(iii)  the fact that CA-funded material which does not comply with the rules of the House may be regarded as constituency "campaign expenditure" under section 72 of PPERA, and therefore as being subject to the requirements of Part V of the Act (paragraph 37);

(iv)  the potential value of Members seeking advice on a proposed publication in a timely manner (paragraph 41).

20.  The substance of the first three points has been covered elsewhere in this paper, and the Committee endorses the Commissioner's view that any revised guidance on the CA should reflect these points.

21.  The Committee also endorses the Commissioner's conclusion on the potential value of Members seeking advice on a proposed publication in a timely manner. Arrangements to provide authoritative advice already exist, and Members are well advised to seek such advice, in good time, on the finalised version, as points such as layout, headlines, captions on illustrations, and links between text and any illustrations can have a significant effect on overall perception of a publication. Partial clearance, for instance of a Word file of body text, is inevitably of lesser value.

22.  It is important in this context that the reviewing staff are of sufficient experience and seniority to take the very fine judgements that are called for on the margins; it is not satisfactory for advice simply to be predicated on a risk-averse approach. It must also remain the case that the Member has ultimate responsibility for the content of the publication.

23.  The basis and extent of advice taken may well be a relevant consideration for both the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee if a complaint is received that a publication breaches the CA rules.

Committee on Standards and Privileges

29 April 2008


 
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