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The situation regarding envelopes and stationery is curious, as Members have already observed. The rules say, in principle, that Members are not supposed to use those facilities to send out unsolicited mailings. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Serjeant at Arms and the commissioner found some difficulty—I choose my words carefully—in picking their way through the regulation. It is absurd that if a post office were due to close in a village of 100 houses in a Member’s constituency, he or she could not write about the closure to the 200 residents who live in those houses—yet if the Member received a petition on the future of the planet signed by 30,000 people, it would be perfectly in order to use the crested stationery and
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pre-paid envelopes to correspond with them. That is clearly nonsense. Whatever else happens, if we leave in place a system that allows unlimited use of post and stationery, we need far clearer and more definite rules than we have at present. If anything, the rules are rather over-prescriptive; I should prefer a more sensible regime, but with a clear cap on the expenditure. We cannot have our cake and eat it—it must be one way or the other.

I come now to annual reports and similar communications sent out by Members that can be funded by the IEP, where there are also some strange rules. For example, the content of those reports is rightly supposed to be non-partisan, but if we include a direct quote of something said in Parliament, it becomes possible to refer to our own speeches in Westminster Hall, during which the most scandalously partisan points may have been raised. Such comments could be passported straight into the report with no infringement of the rules. That is clearly absolute nonsense, which makes a complete mockery of the system, and it needs to be tightened up.

The motion before the House invites us to consider the communications allowance and the Members Estimate Committee is invited to bring forward regulations that would allow us to address all the anomalies to which I have referred. Some have asked why we need a communications allowance and why we are not simply allowed greater use of envelopes and stationery. For one thing, that is an incredibly expensive way for MPs to take proactive communication out to the constituency. Each item sent will incur the full postage rate whereas there are, as hon. Members will know, much more economically viable ways of communicating with large numbers of people. Rather than use ordinary postage of the Royal Mail, it is far better to have a communications allowance through which Members can use their own ingenuity and ability to manage a budget—to refer back to an earlier point—in order to get the best solution that best suits the communications that they want within the rules that are rightly understood as necessary to exclude party political purposes.

Andrew Mackinlay: It is the ingenuity point that worries me because it leaves great scope for misunderstanding and avoidance. The US Congress allows mailings, but they are all in the same format. If we are to go down this road, we should opt for parity of treatment, similar format and minimal scope for innovation. We should all have the same degree of communication.

Nick Harvey: I certainly agree with the objective of trying to put Members on an equal footing. As I have said, it cannot be right that some are spending 15 times more public money than average on communications. We could go down the route of having a precisely equal format, but I do not welcome the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of trying to stamp out innovation. In the modern era, there are many different ways of communicating and there could be generation gaps between different Members in how they proceed. We need a certain amount of flexibility. The motion calls for the rules to be worked out, so it would be perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to make his recommendations to the Committee.

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I was dismayed to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) imply that she intended to vote against the motion simply because she would prefer our usage of envelopes and crested stationery to be paid for out of the communications allowance. I agree with her—she is entirely right—about how it should operate, but it seems to me to be within the scope of the motion for that sort of detail to be dealt with by the Members Estimate Committee, as it draws up the detailed regulations to accompany the allowance. The right hon. Lady will have a further opportunity to make her point at that stage, and if it came back to the House later she could pick it up again. I honestly do not believe that her preference for operating the scheme, which I share, provides any reason at all to vote against the motion.

I also listened carefully to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, who accurately described some of the difficulties experienced in implementing the rules as they stand, and I rather shared his point of view that the new regime should not give rise to a big increase in the total spend. Again, that issue can be hammered out when the details are formulated, but the motion today establishes a principle. I believe that it is a good and right principle.

Communicating with our electorate what Members and Parliament are doing is an entirely legitimate right. It happens in many other countries and it is important to undertake that work if we are to improve the House’s reputation. However, everybody must be on an equal footing, and there must be a cap and better and more logical rules. The communications allowance proposal represents the best opportunity to try to create such a regime that we have had for a long time. When I consider how long it has taken to get to that point, I shudder to think how long it will take to get back here if we blow the chance today and reject the proposals. I therefore urge hon. Members to support motion 6.

5.25 pm

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who serves on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee, as I do. His words are interesting and he is right to refer us to the text of the motion on the communications allowance. It states:

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point that, if we miss the opportunity today, we will not get to grips with the problem, which has been aired fully, with many hon. Members explaining their circumstances and how they relate to their constituents.

I apologise for not being present earlier because of the national health service lobby in Central Lobby and elsewhere. I cannot refer to some of the earlier points that were made, but I am glad that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) remains in his place because he explained that he felt disadvantaged as a Member of Parliament who has not been here long
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when compared with those who have been here for some 20 years. I assure him that, after 20 years, he will find a way of filling those Wednesday evenings that currently leave him at a loose end.

I am glad that you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I became a Member of Parliament 23 years ago and you followed my maiden speech—we all remember the occasion of our maiden speeches. When I first became a Member of Parliament, we left the premises in July and did not return for 12 weeks. It never entered our minds to come back for very simple reasons: we had a locker, not an office, and we had no reason to be here. As the years passed, the facilities changed and one can do as much work here as elsewhere in those three months.

I was interested to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who urged September sittings. I work here throughout September as Second Church Estates Commissioner and I assure hon. Members that it is no joke. The place is a building site, there are no facilities and it is difficult to get anything done.

I refer hon. Members to the written answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) mentioned about the cost of coming back in September. We are always told to take the ratepayer and the taxpayer into account and how much we are costing them. One figure that my hon. Friend did not provide was the cost of the two-day emergency recall in September 1998, which was estimated to be £375,000 in work costs. There were other staff costs, mainly for security and some overtime, which amounted to £33,200. That was for an emergency recall, the reasons for which we all understand. However, having a September sitting when the place is a building site costs much more.

The place becomes a building site because the Houses of Parliament are about 150 years old. I estimate that it would take 14 years to put the building right through repairs, yet they can be carried out only in the 12-week summer recess. If we consider value for money for the taxpayer, there is no great benefit in coming back in September.

When I came into the Chamber, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) was making an intervention about foreign trips in September. I had the honour, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of leading a parliamentary delegation to Algeria in September. It was the first delegation of its kind, and it had the blessing of the President of Algeria and our Prime Minister. It was an important trip for the purposes of opening up our democracy to the democracy of Algeria, a strategic partner in the Mediterranean and in Africa. It would have been a tremendous blow if that delegation had not been allowed to go ahead because of a September sitting. When we were in Algeria, we were told that a Minister of the Crown was due to visit the country in October and that people were looking forward to that visit. However, there was some hesitation about whether it would go ahead because the business of the House might result in the Minister not being allowed to go. Cancelling such trips at the last moment would diminish the prestige of the House of Commons and of this Parliament.

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The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an eloquent and profound speech earlier, in which he said that the Members Estimate Committee would be in charge of determining how the communications allowance is to be worked out. That could be a challenge for the Committee, but it is a challenge that we are quite happy and willing to take up.

My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred to their relationships with their constituencies. We all find that difficult in this day and age because the bridge between civil society and political society is the media. We are generally able to communicate with our constituents only through the media. The media have changed, however, and they now have a different analysis of the situation. I do not wish to comment on particular instances, but there are newspapers around the country that have cancelled the contracts of their parliamentary reporters. They no longer have a parliamentary reporter here. How are the Members of Parliament in such constituencies to communicate with the electorate? Regardless of what people may think about the various allowances and expenses—I should say “allowances”, rather than “expenses”—every allowance is fully approved by the House authorities. However, there are distortions within those allowances that we need to take into account. The communications allowance will provide a way of doing that, which is why I give it my full support.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that compelling argument about the media. Does he also accept that some parts of the media, even the local media, can take a dislike to a politician and play politics—

Mr. Kevan Jones: Surely not!

Bob Spink: Oh, yes—not that that happens in Castle Point. However, those sections of the media can become political and influence the way in which an MP’s message goes out, both visually and in the way in which they print what the MP says. We must empower MPs to overcome that phenomenon.

Sir Stuart Bell: I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. During the Cleveland child abuse crisis some 20 years ago, certain newspapers decided, for the sake of it, to mount personal attacks on me. I was personally attacked by some sections of the media for no reason other than that they wanted to be controversial. When that happens at local level, it can distort the way in which a Member of Parliament goes about his business and how his constituents will see him. In society, it is a fact that mud sticks.

It is important that we give the motion on the communications allowance our full support. I should also like to reiterate my full support for the motion that there should be no September sittings. They are not conducive to the House of Commons. Having listened to the interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I sometimes think that we take ourselves too seriously. We think that we have
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greater powers than we actually have. Our role here is to hold the Executive to account, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and others have said. That is the great challenge that the House of Commons faces. We are a sovereign Parliament for a sovereign people, and we should be able to communicate with our electorate without the distortions of the press. The communications allowance will represent a step forward in that regard. Furthermore, there is no need to have September sittings in order to fulfil our functions.

5.34 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), who made a powerful and important speech. Unfortunately, I think that I will disagree with him on several points.

I support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to the motion on September sittings. I am disappointed that the Leader of the House has tabled a motion that would increase the power of the Executive and decrease the power of Parliament. I would have thought that the Leader of the House should be the champion of parliamentary democracy, but the motion would do nothing to strengthen the power of Parliament—in fact, it would take that away.

It is a great honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament. As parliamentarians, our primary duty is to hold the Executive to account. However, year after year, the Government are taking more power and bypassing Parliament at every level. One of the few weapons that MPs have left in their battle with the Executive is oral questions—bringing Ministers to the Dispatch Box and questioning them on important issues of the day, thus making the Government explain their actions.

To most people outside the House, the idea that Parliament shuts down for 12 weeks in the summer and autumn is unacceptable. They believe that MPs swan off for extra-long holidays and that the Government get off scot-free, and that reinforces their perception of us. Everyone here knows that the first part of that statement is untrue. Members spend the recess in their constituencies attending meetings and events and doing constituency work. However, the second part of the statement is correct: the Government are given a free rein.

Last summer, Parliament did not sit for 76 days, despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in the middle east, the collapse of the immigration system, law and order issues, terrorism and the cuts in the health service. Not once in 76 days were Members able to question a Minister at the Dispatch Box. Not once were Ministers able to make statements in the House before Members could quiz them over their actions. Not once were MPs allowed to ask oral questions on one of the 100 or so written ministerial statements that were rushed out just before the summer recess, and at no time did the Prime Minister come to the House to explain his and the Government’s actions. It is not right for democracy that the Government are immune to scrutiny by Parliament for 76 days in the summer.

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Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. If he is suggesting that the House should sit during those 76 days, for how many days does he think that the House should sit throughout the year?

Mr. Bone: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to that point later in my speech.

Members of Parliament have many roles to fulfil, but the most important is holding the Executive to account. This democratic right has been denied to us during the summer recess. That is extremely damaging for democracy. It is damaging that so much power is given to the Executive, who escape scrutiny.

Mr. Winnick: I certainly do not wish to antagonise the hon. Gentleman, given that he supports my amendment. I have obviously advocated his argument. However, not sitting in the summer has been the situation for a long time—for centuries, I suppose. In 1996, for example, which was the last year of the Conservative Government, the House rose on 25 July and went back on 14 October. In 1992, it rose on 16 July and went back on 19 October. The situation has thus been continuous.

Mr. Bone: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. For years and years, the Executive have eroded the power of Parliament. We have the opportunity today to put the balance back a little further towards where it should be.

It is not right that during the summer recess the only scrutineers of the Government are the media. The media have a role to play in scrutinising the Government but they are not elected, they do not have to respond to constituents, and many in the media have their own agenda. I have made clear in the House on several occasions my views in favour of September sittings. However, I am not suggesting that the House sits for two weeks in September and then reconvenes in October after the conference season. It is absurd and a waste of time and money to reconvene for a short period, only to break up again for a short period before Parliament starts properly in October.

The new parliamentary term should commence in September and follow through until the Christmas recess. I see no problem in keeping the conference dates as they are. Not all Members go to the conferences anyway, and under my proposals Members would have the choice of attending the party’s conference or being present in Parliament. I am not suggesting that parliamentary time in September should be used to create new legislation or to force Divisions. I want to use September for innovation and to free up time for scrutiny.

If Parliament sits in September, that month should be used for in-depth reviews of Government Departments. It is right that a Minister should come to the House in September and answer Members’ questions about a particular Department. Why not have a whole week’s review of the Department of Health? Time should also be set aside for parliamentary questions to be asked in the House and answered by the various Departments. The Prime Minister or his Deputy should come to the House each week and explain his actions. There would not need to
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be votes on matters brought before the House during this period, but it would provide much needed time for debate and to review and scrutinise the Government’s running of our country. That would give right hon. and hon. Members the chance to question Ministers on matters of importance to them and their constituents.

Several reasons have been given as to why it would be impossible to begin the parliamentary term in September, and a deal of opposition has been expressed. Let us consider the objections. As a recent parliamentary answer by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) suggests, the building works programme is planned to fit in with the expected parliamentary timetable, and by changing the timetable it would cost more because building works would have to be carried out in a shorter space of time. What a ridiculous excuse to use. There is no reason why works could not be planned around a new parliamentary timetable. I refuse to believe that that would cost taxpayers more money in the long run. Quite the reverse—if during September we were to properly scrutinise the Executive and Government Departments, we could perhaps save taxpayers millions upon millions of pounds. Are we really saying that building works should determine when the mother of Parliaments sits?

Mark Lazarowicz: Is it not worth pointing out that the assumption always was that if at some time September sittings were to take place, Parliament would rise a little earlier in July? So it is not a case of there being no time at all for works in the summer. There would be some time at the beginning to make up for time lost at the end.

Mr. Bone: I entirely agree. I am arguing that there should not be an 11-week gap when the Government are not scrutinised. September sittings would give the opportunity to introduce new ideas and innovations.

I do not buy the excuse that it would cost a huge amount of money for the Commons Chamber and the rest of the parliamentary estate to be open. It is open anyway during the recess, with thousands of staff and visitors using the site every day. The cost of running the Chamber would be a marginal extra cost. Are we really saying that cost should be placed before democracy?

Above all, I do not buy the excuse that parliamentary sittings in September would prevent Members from spending time in their constituencies, for two reasons. First, the September sittings would be a period of debate, scrutiny and review, in which there would be no Divisions, and in which no new legislation would be introduced.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman has still not answered my first question on how long Parliament should sit throughout the year. However, on another point, I know that he is new to the House, and he is obviously very enthusiastic, but is he seriously suggesting that, if there were no Divisions during such a period, there would be mass attendance in the Chamber?

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