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Having said that, what the right hon. Gentleman said when quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)-he could easily have quoted me because I have spoken in many of the same debates-is clearly our position. We need caps on expenditure and caps on donations, and we need those to extend beyond the election period and the proximity of the election period. Those caps also need to cover central office funding because that is one of the great abuses of the system at the moment by all parties.

If the parties believe there is a marginal seat, they put in an enormous amount of generic election material that does not refer to the candidate and is completely beyond the radar of the current electoral system. If the right hon. Gentleman feels that way, he should have voted with us when we put down amendments that would have dealt with that matter. However, he did not and the Government refused to do so. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) mentioned the all-party talks, with which I was also involved. I have a slightly different recollection from him of the sequence of events but, nevertheless, it is sad that we were not able to reach a conclusion.

May I deal with what we are supposed to be talking about, which is the communications allowance? I agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West that one of the sad things about the debate is that two issues have been conflated and the communications allowance has been seen as the answer to the lack of limits on political party spending. It cannot be the answer to that problem, and if that is how the matter is being seen, it is absolutely wrong for the allowance to be abolished on that basis. A communications allowance that is designed to allow Members of Parliament to communicate with their constituents should not be used for party political purposes.

If the right hon. Member for Streatham has difficulty raising funds and putting out leaflets and newspapers in his constituency, that is a problem he has with his political base; it is not one that should be dealt with by the communications allowance. I voted against the communications allowance because I thought it was an unnecessary additional expenditure, but I am not against some of things that it provides for, which were already allowable under the other office costs allowances. Annual reports are a useful mechanism for communicating what an MP has done for constituents, provided they are not used for party political purposes.

Over the past few years, one of the problems has been that people do not understand what MPs do and why we are here. That is why the expenses scandal had so much potency. It is important that we advertise where we hold our surgeries. In my case-I have a very rural constituency of 900 square miles-I do an annual tour each year of more than 100 villages. I want people to know that I am going to be in their village and when they can meet me in the pub, outside the post box or wherever.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Heath: I have not got time-I have only six minutes.

It is also right that we should be able to write proactively, directly to constituents on matters that affect them and on how we are doing our job as Members of Parliament.
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The hon. Member for Reading, West was right that there was abuse of the free post system, which is why it was taken away, but that does not mean that we do not need to do something, and we should have the capacity to act.

My party is foursquare behind the Kelly proposals and the IPSA proposals, as are the other parties' Front Benchers. Sadly, we are not in a position to argue for exemptions where we think we have got the matter wrong, but when the IPSA rules are finally formulated, I hope they provide sufficient latitude for Members of Parliament to do their job properly. If IPSA can pull that off and get it right, we will have the balance right. I do not believe that the communications allowance was widely abused; it was abused by some, but the pre-existing arrangement was also abused by some. When it comes down to it, again, it is a matter of having trust in Members of Parliament to do their job properly within the rules, which it seems some have still to learn. However, I hope that others have got the message and that more will continue to do so in the next Parliament.

3.46 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I start by giving my condolences to the family of Michael Foot? He was a distinguished Member of Parliament and I am sure that all our thoughts are with his family today.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on securing the debate, which ostensibly is about the communications allowance, but, as we have heard, has ranged into various other areas. It is worth recapping why the communications allowance was introduced in the first place. The then Leader of the House, who is now Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, said it was

in part due to

on MPs. However, the position was best summed up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the then shadow Leader of the House, when she said that the allowance

Put bluntly, the allowance was an opportunity for sitting MPs to boost their profile using public funds. If every Member used his or her communication allowance, the cost to the taxpayer of that incumbency benefit would be £6.5 million a year, or some £30 million during the lifetime of a Parliament.

However, it was not just the Conservatives who opposed the communications allowance. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said:

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said it would be "thinly disguised party propaganda" and "vanity publishing." As we have heard, Sir Christopher
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Kelly and Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, have both said that they are against the communications allowance. I, for one, am happy about that.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Vara: Very briefly, because I have a lot to get through.

Mr. Stuart: The point is that communication was not impossible before. There was a very modest amount that could come out of the then incidental expenses provision to allow people to communicate with their electorate. No one would object to some communication, but it needs to be modest-although thinly disguised self-congratulatory communication will perhaps happen at times. The problem is that the £10,000 was brought in as an additional bung by incumbent Labour MPs who did not like having some competition.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. In fact, his intervention leads me on to my next point. The right hon. Member for Streatham spoke of some £283,000 being used by his Lib Dem opponent in the past three years, but from the Electoral Commission reports, I see that only £51,594 has been registered in the past four years. The extraordinary thing is that, in the past year, the Lib Dem candidate's contribution has been £11,500, whereas the right hon. Gentleman's constituency Labour party has received £13,000 from trade unions. If we add to that another £10,000, it sounds like the incumbent has an even greater advantage than that received from his own contributions, as revealed by the Electoral Commission. I am sorry to see the right hon. Member for Streatham, for whom I have considerable respect-we have neighbouring offices-go down the route of suggesting that there ought to be public funding for party politics. That is not what I would have expected from him in his swan-song, but he might have been persuaded to do that by colleagues who hope to stick around after the general election.

Given that Lord Ashcroft has been mentioned many times in the debate, I shall put his position on the record. Since my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) became leader of the Conservative party, Lord Ashcroft has personally given no money to the party. Rather, his company, Bearwood Corporate Services, has donated. The company is properly registered and trades in the UK. Last year, only 1 per cent. of the money received by the party came from Bearwood, which is less than Sir Ronald Cohen, a non-dom, alone gave the Labour party. Moreover, since my right hon. Friend became leader of the Conservative party, 5 per cent. of the total receipts are from Bearwood, and contributions to marginal seats from Bearwood amount to 10 per cent. of the total money received by those seats. For those Labour and Lib Dem Members who are arithmetically challenged, that means that 95 per cent. of party funding and 90 per cent. of marginal seat funding has come from sources other than Bearwood since 2005. Perhaps Members present should take account of what Michael Crick wrote on his blog on 24 February on the fact that Bearwood gave only £80,000 in the last quarter:

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It is important to put the record straight on trade union contributions to Labour seats. For example, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) received £47,500 from trade unions in five years, and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) received £36,320 from May 2005 to March 2009. In just two donations in one month in 2006 the Labour party in Hammersmith received £25,000. It would perhaps be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House, when she responds, talked about Lord Paul's contributions and then his elevation to the Privy Council, or Lakshmi Mittal's £4 million donation to the Labour party. And of course we must not forget the helpful letter Tony Blair sent his counterpart in Romania, Adrian Nastase, supporting a business that was not registered in the UK. There are other examples. Sir Ronald Cohen gave more than £2.5 million and, incidentally, received his knighthood in 2000. Sir Christopher Ondaatje donated £1.7 million and was knighted in 2003.

Let us not forget the Lib Dems, who received donations from Michael Brown, a convicted criminal. Perhaps they conveniently overlook the fact that a US attorney is still asking for the donations to be repaid. It would be helpful if they did so.

I hope that I have put the balance right. Non-dom donors are contributing a hell of a lot more to the Labour party than they are to the Conservative party.

3.53 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook, and I join in the tributes paid to Michael Foot. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on securing the debate. As he said, he is retiring at the next election after 18 years of service. He served most effectively in several ministerial roles and his retirement will be a loss to the House.

Communications, which I think is what we are supposed to be talking about, is at the heart of our work in our constituencies. To represent our constituents effectively, we need to communicate with them on the work we do, as many Members have said today, and on local issues. I know from my experience that communications expenditure can be a useful tool, and several examples have been given in the debate. Last year I had to inform a large number of households in my constituency about work that would be going ahead on the M60 motorway. As with the other cases referred to by Members, if I had not told my constituents about that work, they would not have known.

We have heard some interesting contributions. One could be forgiven for being confused. Although the average communications allowance expenditure is about £8,400 across the House, seven Opposition Members who have intervened in the debate used the communications allowance for 2008-09 to the level of £95,000 between them, and two of those Members spent more than £20,000 and are among only 11 Members who spent as much. It is interesting that they argue against something that they used to a level of more than £20,000.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

Barbara Keeley: No, there is not time. Proactive communication, such as the letter I sent to my constituents, is not currently supported, which is a pity. My right
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hon. Friend the Member for Streatham gave a short history of the allowance. As he said, it was introduced after a period of increased interest in Parliament's engagement with the public. It came in with that new cap of £7,000 on pre-paid Commons stationery, which had previously been unlimited. In many cases that effectively meant an overall reduction in expenditure, which is important to note. It was a move to proactive communications.

Many items that have been discussed in the debate were previously allowed under office costs, such as websites, and printing and distributing of reports, newsletters and so on, but not petitions, questionnaires or mailings that can be targeted at certain areas in a constituency. They were included in the scope of the communications allowance for the first time, so it was a positive development. To be clear, the decision to suspend communications expenditure was taken to ensure consistency with the new regime for the regulation of parliamentary candidates' election expenses, which was brought in by the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. Those restrictions were agreed by the Members Estimate Committee on 23 November. It is important to note that the restriction of expenditure under the communications allowance was judged at that point to be a necessary and short-term measure to avoid any perception of electoral advantage stemming from the use of a publicly-funded allowance.

Let us now look at the future decisions on communications expenditure that could be made. In its report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life was critical of what it saw as the self-promotion contained in some of the materials produced using the communications allowance, a point to which Members have already referred. My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham commented that it is difficult to see how that could be entirely omitted from materials designed to report on activities of Members. Indeed, local authorities do much the same by producing the newsletters and communications we have heard about.

As right hon. and hon. Members have discussed, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, in its initial consultation document, took a more restrictive view than the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly. In fact, IPSA has proposed that communications expenditure should be allowed only for advertising meetings and surgery times and for contact cards. It is important to note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that the allowances scheme should continue to support proactive communications funded from overall office costs, rather than from a separate allowance. That is a key point, as Members have referred to a decision to close that down, which has not yet been taken.

The Government accepted the Committee's recommendations but expressed a consistent view in their evidence to IPSA. That evidence stated that the new allowance system should provide Members with adequate resources to carry out their work effectively on behalf of their constituents and that allowances should recognise and underpin the vital link between an MP and his or her constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made some interesting points on the need to safeguard against the advantage of a wealthy parliamentary candidate over candidates of average means. It has been argued
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that communications expenditure could give that advantage to incumbents, but I think that it has been useful for the House to hear that advantage can lie elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) also raised the possibility of a more effective limit on pre-election expenditure, and I trust that Justice Ministers will consider that.

Final decisions on a new allowances scheme are now being made by IPSA. A powerful case has been made in the debate to consider the resources needed by Members to communicate effectively with their constituents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) underlined that important point. I trust that board members of IPSA will note the views expressed today, and I will ensure that a copy of the Hansard report of the debate is drawn to their attention.

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Private Tenants and Leaseholders (London)

4 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased that you are chairing this debate, Mr. Cook. In a sense, it is a continuation of yesterday's debate on housing in London, which was about the terrible shortages of housing, particularly of affordable rented accommodation. [Interruption.] I think I am losing the attention of some of the Members in the Chamber.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. Will Members please leave the Chamber quietly?

Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr. Cook. I shall start again.

I am pleased that we are having this debate today. In many ways, it is a continuation of yesterday's debate, which was about housing shortages in London, and the overwhelming need for rapid construction of a large number of affordable rented council places.

My constituency has, roughly speaking, about 40 per cent. of its residents living in council-owned or housing association accommodation, a fast-declining level of owner occupation-probably about 30 per cent. and falling-and the remainder of its residents in private rented accommodation, which is the fastest growing sector and one that causes many tenants and me a great deal of concern. I shall come on to that in a moment.

We have to open the debate by recognising the need for everyone to have a decent home to live in, in security, where they can bring up their children in reasonable space and be part of community life. Because of the large growth in the private rented sector, there is huge population turnover, certainly in my constituency, which is in inner London. Indeed, I suspect that many colleagues in other inner-London constituencies and inner-city constituencies all over the country experience this problem. It is disruptive for families, particularly children, who have to move schools as a result of it.

In short, we have three forms of private sector tenancy in this country. The biggest by a long way is the assured shorthold tenancy, which provides limited security under the Housing Act 1988. The assured tenancy provides greater protection than assured shorthold tenancies, but there are many fewer of them. The last kind of tenancy, of which there is a very small number, is the regulated tenancy, which is a derivative of the Rent Act 1977. The then Labour Government were resolute in controlling tenancies, providing security of tenure and controlling rent levels. It is that issue that I want to deal with first.

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