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I mentioned that the communications allowance came in on the back of Lord Puttnam's commission's work on Parliament and communications, which concluded
that both the institution and MPs needed to be better equipped to communicate with the public about the workings of democracy. It is surely irrefutable in principle that MPs need to offer their constituents some account of their activities in both the House and the constituency. In the light of longer-term voting trends and in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal, surely such accountability is more important than ever before. We have to rebuild the trust between politicians and the people, and one of the ways in which we can do that is by explaining what we do. In practice, unless MPs do it, no one will. It is a fact of life across all media, including local media, that there has been a decline in the reporting of Parliament, yet it is good for democracy that people should know what their MPs have been doing in Parliament and that, from time to time, they have succeeded in bringing benefits to their constituencies.
Mr. Hands: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. His principle that Members of Parliament should be allowed to inform constituents of their activities sounds reasonable enough, but unfortunately the reality of the past couple of years has been that, on many occasions, that position has been abused and Members have had to repay money paid under the communications allowance because such information turned out to be naked party political advertising. It is that that has brought politics into disrepute, not the lack of communication in the first place.
Keith Hill: I concede that a small number of colleagues have overstepped the mark. However, I am sure that in 2008-09, when the hon. Gentleman spent substantial sums of his communications allowance on communicating with his constituents, which I notice he has now ceased to do-presumably in the light of his leader's pronouncements on these matters-his communications were entirely about democratic accountability. With my now extensive knowledge of the hon. Gentleman, I would expect nothing less of him.
Mr. Hands: I thank the right hon. Gentleman again. He mentioned that more than 600 Members have made use of the communications allowance, but it is worth pointing out for the record that, quite often, one has no choice, because there are some things that were previously allowable under different allowances that can now only be held under the communications allowance, such as, for example, running a constituency website. As he has specifically mentioned my use of the communications allowance, I will say that I have ceased using it and firmly believe that it should be abolished because it is an abuse and has brought this House into disrepute.
Keith Hill: I have to draw a line under accepting further interventions, at least at this early stage. I have plenty to say and we are beginning to hear a very similar message from those who are intervening on me.
The point I seek to make is that communicating that type of information is a response to the familiar cry of, "We only see you when you want our vote." It is a means of engaging the public in politics. Such communications are only one part of the process of re-engaging the public, which will not be a fast process. That is why I believe that the Kelly report was premature in dismissing that aspect of the communications allowance only two years into its operation.
I believe that there is a valuable role for communications expenditure in all constituencies. I do not want to build my whole argument for the communications allowance on this, but let me say in passing that the winding up of the allowance will be particularly unhelpful in big city constituencies such as my own Streatham seat in south London, where there are special difficulties in making electors aware of the activities of their MPs. It is all very well for colleagues presiding over very stable electorates to be somewhat snooty about the uses of the communications allowance; they have the chance of building up long-term relationships with their constituents. In London, however-it may be true elsewhere-local bought newspapers tend to have small readerships and free sheets have sporadic distributions; and regional media, radio, television and the Evening Standard do not cover individual constituencies and rarely report on Back Benchers. On top of such difficulties in communication, many big city seats have highly transient populations. In my Streatham constituency, the last two censuses revealed that more than 20 per cent. of the population had changed address within the previous 12 months. As a consequence, analysis of the electoral register in Streatham indicates that only 41 per cent. of current electors lived in the constituency five years ago, and 38 per cent. of current electors arrived in the past two years. Those are rather striking figures. It may be a transient electorate but it is still perfectly entitled to know what its MP is up to.
Mr. Binley: I have some considerable sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but there are ways in which we can support newsletters. I am a capitalist and I get a lot of money from small businesses that advertise in my newsletter, so no taxpayer money goes into supporting it. I hope he will take that into account as a method of communicating as well.
Mr. Mark Field: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I entirely endorse what he has said about representing a London seat. I am in exactly the same boat with more than a fifth of my population turning over every single year. I confess that I have used the communications allowance in the past-not in this year because I have realised that there is now a strong move for it to be abolished-and have found it a very useful way to communicate with constituents. However, using public money in such a way gives an unbelievable advantage to an incumbent, and for that reason it is regarded as unacceptable. None the less, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, the majority of MPs who use the allowance do so entirely legitimately. They do not use it for out-and-out party political propaganda.
Keith Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has made a reasonable intervention, as I would expect from my long knowledge and observation of him. I intend to come on to some of those points about the advantages that may or may not be conferred on incumbents.
However, let me return to my point about transients. I would be grateful to learn from IPSA how MPs in seats such as mine can be expected to engage with such challenging electorates only on the basis of leaflets about occasional meetings and advice surgeries and contact cards. Of course there were other criticisms of the communications allowance. The Kelly report criticised the self-promotional character of the materials published under the communications allowance. Frankly, it would be disingenuous of any of us here to deny that there had been such an element of self-promotion.
None the less, if we are talking about engaging local people in the parliamentary process, surely there can be no more effective means of engagement than information about the MP whose fate they themselves determine. It is my contention that there have been too many photographs, but is it not inevitable that most of the stories will be about the MP? What I strongly dispute, however, is a further Kelly report criticism, which is that there was widespread evidence that the communications allowance was being used in ways that were overtly party political. Yes, there have been some exceptions, and they have been policed and dealt with, and they involved a very small minority of Members.
Indeed, the more familiar accusation against materials produced under the communications allowance has been of their blandness rather than their partisanship, and that is because MPs have been reasonably scrupulous about excluding overtly party political content from such publications. If materials published by MPs, or incumbents, have been overwhelmingly non-partisan in character, that same constraint does not apply to their political opponents. As we know, incumbents have been the targets of very highly funded campaigns by their political opponents. It is my contention that the communications allowance has offered at least some small element of balance in the face of highly funded opposing candidates.
I beg the House not to misunderstand me. I am not arguing that the communications allowance should be used as a free fighting fund to allow incumbents to beat off challengers-it is right that it should retain its non-partisan character-but I am saying that, faced with a deluge of materials from highly funded opponents,
at least the communications allowance serves the minimal purpose of reminding voters that they already have an MP in place.
Let me be frank: I believe that there should be some balance, some equity and some fairness in local and national campaign expenditure. I believe that there should be limits on local campaign expenditure, and I believe that that is achievable. Indeed, the attempt to secure at least a rough balance has been at the heart of British electoral practice for more than a century. Since 1883, with the first Representation of the People Act, successive Acts of Parliament have imposed limits on permitted election expenditure by candidates and increasingly there have been attempts to control national campaign expenditure.
At the local level, we have a cap on general election spending, and under the most recent legislation in this area, the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, we have a cap on pre-general election spending, from the 56th month of a Parliament. However, we no longer have any restraint on spending on behalf of candidates in the years between elections. There was such restraint until 2000, when the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000 came into effect. Pre-2000, the situation was pretty clear.
Let me quote the noble Lord Rennard-Baron Rennard of Wavertree, former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats and fabled by-election winner. Speaking in a debate in the other place last year, on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, he said:
"Between 1883 and 2000, effective legislation was in place to deal with some of the problems of using money"- [Interruption.]
Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I think that this is the third time that I have said this-there is too much chuntering. I need to hear every syllable that is said in the debate. I will not allow any Member, of whatever rank, to impugn any Member of Parliament. I need to hear what is said clearly, so please desist with the chuntering.
"Between 1883 and 2000, effective legislation was in place to deal with some of the problems of using money to buy undue influence in a particular constituency. Inadvertently, the trigger was removed in 2000". -[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. GC210.]
In that context, it is difficult to avoid the name of another noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire and long-term UK resident, who in the lead-up to the 2005 general election donated between £20,000 and £40,000 to Conservative candidates in 36 marginal seats. We know that because his lordship tells us about it in his autobiography, which is entitled, "Dirty politics, Dirty times".
The story continues, as we learned from the front page of last Saturday's edition of The Independent, with "Ashcroft's election war-chest targets marginals" and the news that the election fund that he controls, as deputy chairman of the Conservative party, has directed more than £1.1 million to 55 marginal seats, which is an
average of £21,000 per constituency, but with much more than that being directed at some seats. For example, £36,000 was directed at the Pendle constituency. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) in his place and I dare say that we will hear more about that contribution in due course. Another £39,000 was directed at the City of York constituency, and £55,000 at the Solihull constituency.
Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I am following what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and I must remind the House that we are discussing the winding-up of the communications allowance. To that end, I must insist that we make reference to the responsibilities of the Minister who is in attendance today and listening to the debate.
Keith Hill: Thank you for that advice, Mr. Cook. I want to go on immediately to the communications allowance and point out that, against such expenditure as I have just described, the average expenditure of £8,000 through the parliamentary communications allowance in 2008-09 looks pretty minor, although I would maintain that for many sitting MPs that expenditure represents their best hope of securing at least some balance in local communities.
However, it would be wrong to imagine that that gross inequality in communications expenditure is the sole preserve of Conservative candidates attacking Labour or Lib Dem incumbents. In my own Streatham seat, since early 2007 residents in all parts of the constituency have been at the receiving end of a torrent of Lib Dem campaigning materials. There have been not only the familiar Lib Dem "Focus" leaflets, but well-printed, highly expensive and multi-coloured newspapers, most of them delivered by paid, professional distribution companies. In addition to the newspaper distributions, there have been the direct mailings-there has been at least one every couple of months-that have been sent through the post to individual electors. That activity does not come cheap. I could not remotely contemplate such expenditure through the communications allowance.
For three years now in the Streatham constituency, electors have, on average, received at least one well-produced, glossy publication every month. They are communications of a highly party political nature, full of attacks on the local Labour council, the Labour Government and, incidentally, the Conservative party, all of them heavily promoting the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, Chris Nicholson. [Interruption.] I am coming on to the communications allowance, Mr. Cook. As I was saying, all that communication has been hugely expensive. It amounts to far more than I could pay for through the parliamentary communications allowance, which may not even be available in the future.
Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I must explain that what I am seeking is a clear distinction between parliamentary funding and party funding, without comment on party funding, because we are talking about parliamentary funding-or we should be, according to the title of the debate.
I want point out, Mr. Cook, that during that three-year period, when my constituents have been subject to this deluge of Lib Dem propaganda, I have
been able to spend money, through the communications allowance, on about nine A4 newsletters. In that time, I have spent less than £30,000 through the communications allowance. That contrasts with a staggering total of £283,494.64 in the same period-virtually all of it funded out of the pocket of my Lib Dem opponent. Furthermore, as we know from the published accounts of the Streatham Lib Dems, it has been spent almost wholly on electioneering in Streatham.
I find it extraordinary and frankly undemocratic that an enormously wealthy man, who was recently in receipt of £800,000 in bonuses as a KPMG partner, can use his wealth to communicate far more often with my electors than I am able to as their Member of Parliament. My recurring theme is that at least I have benefited from the communications allowance in striving to maintain some balance, and I am not even standing at the next general election.
So, if this rich man far outstrips what I can spend on communications as the MP, how much more unfair is it for my successor as the Labour candidate for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, to depend largely on the donations of Labour party members? The Lib Dem candidate in the Streatham constituency is outspending me by a ratio of more than 10:1 and outspending the next Labour candidate by a ratio of 15:1.
What we are seeing in Streatham is the attempted purchase of a parliamentary seat. It is not a level playing field, it is not fair and it would be a good deal more unfair without the communications allowance. The message that I want to give Mr. Nicholson is that Streatham is not for sale.
I hope that that message will prove true at the general election; I believe that it will. However, we mislead ourselves if we think that money does not matter. If it does not matter, why is Lord Ashcroft spending so much of it? If it does not matter, why have we had a succession of Acts limiting election expenditure?
"the first imperative is to get big money out of politics. There should be a strict cap on how much money one person can donate to a political party. There should be strict limits on what parties can spend at both the national and local level. No one should be able to buy an election or be seen to be buying an election."-[Official Report, 2 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 666.]
Those were the words of the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who speaks from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench on these constitutional matters. A month later, speaking on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, he said that
"we have to do something to reduce the gap between us as representatives and the people whom we represent. At the moment, one of the things coming between us and those people is big money... we must set a cap on the influence that individuals have on politics through money."-[Official Report, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c.637-8.]
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