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It could be used for the production of unsolicited communications...to help Members inform their constituents about what they have been doing and to consult them on key issues
of importance to them locally. In better facilitating lines of communication between MPs and the public, it is important that the allowance is set up in a way that means that it does not become a propaganda tool used to entrench the position of incumbents. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, is concerned about that.
While we are on the issue of incumbency, I will just say, because I am sure that we will hear a bit more about this matterit is at the heart of any argument between us and the Opposition on this matterit is a simple arithmetical fact that, irrespective of party, the Government party will have more incumbents than the Opposition party. However, as the right hon. Lady
knows as a member of the Members Estimate Committee, we have worked hard to ensure that the measure is not there to entrench the position of incumbents. In anticipation of her making any partisan point, which I am sure she will not, I would also say that I do not remember concern about incumbency ever passing the lips of any Conservative Member of Parliament when they were sitting on the Government Benches for 18 years.
What I do remember in those 18 years is how often we in the Opposition pleaded for more Short money. All our applications for Short money were turned down. So if the right hon. Lady thinks that she is hard done by as a member of the shadow Cabinet, she should have tried being in the shadow Cabinet for the 10 years that I was there, between 1987 and 1997. I recordI am sure that she will wish to bring this outthe extraordinary selfless generosity of this Government in not doubling, not trebling, but almost quadrupling the amount of Short money from £1.6 million in 1997 to £6.3 million in 2006.
Mrs. May: Will the Leader of the House confirm that in addition to the changes to the Short money, the Government have also introduced the policy development grant, which is available not only to Opposition parties, but to the Government?
In the spirit of sheer partisanship, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that the other thing that happened in the 18 years under the Conservative party was a ballooning in the budget for the Central Office of Information, to the extent that every council tax payer and every ratepayer in my town and across the country had a delightful little leaflet explaining the advantages
Jo Swinson: On the subject of the sums that taxpayers will have to pay, the Leader of the House may remember that when we debated the issue on 1 November, I did some arithmetical calculations on the back on an envelope and suggested that
the proposed allowance could be an additional £6 million of taxpayers money.
I do not believe for a second that the net cost will be as the hon. Lady describes. [ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 312.]
it is estimated that the total annual cost of the Communications Allowance would be about £6 million.
When the House voted on the matter last time, it was under the impression that the cost would be less. What is his opinion of that figure? It obviously was not too difficult to work out. It is a huge amount of taxpayers money and, in my view, it is not warranted.
Mr. Straw: The maximum gross cost is easy, arithmetically, to work out: it is 650 times £10,000. We can all do that sum, can we not? What I was disputing was the idea that people would spend up to the maximum. That is not the case for other allowances. I understand that, in general, other allowances are spent at the level of about 90 per cent.I have just had semaphore confirmation of that from the Box. It also needs to be borne in mind that an estimatethese are only estimates; time will tell whether they are correcthas been made of a possible saving of £400,000 in respect of those who currently draw allowances above the £7,000 limit. Even if the cost were to be at the £6 million level, I happen to think that it would be money well spent. I quote in my support the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)a Conservative Memberwho said in the debate on 1 November:
It is too easy to dismiss the proposed allowance as extra money for Members of Parliament, when it is actually an initiative that would put a cap on irresponsible behaviour.[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 381.]
Miss Kirkbride: I would like to refer to the Leader of the Houses previous answer. Although Members have not been found guilty of misusing their allowances, some have had to reimburse the Fees Office for envelopes that were used mistakenly. Why has the right hon. Gentleman chosen the amounts of £7,000 and £10,000 for these allowances? Were the figures pulled out of a hat?
Mr. Straw: Let me answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). I am not aware of any circumstances in which Members have been required to return envelopes, although that does not mean that they do not exist.
In the end, the setting of the allowance was a matter of judgment. We judged that the sum was relatively modest and reasonable. The decision on advising
Mr. Speakerthis is his decision, not ourson the maximum that could be spent on paid-for envelopes was taken using the judgment that the amount would cover the majority of Members. That amount is the point at which the normal bell curve distribution starts getting very skewed. The mean expenditure is £4,500 to £5,000, so the amount would cover most Members activities.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House explain why he did not await the judgment of the Senior Salaries Review Body on this allowance, which happens with all other allowances?
Mr. Straw: This is a new allowance. I was not aware that we were required to await the judgment of the SSRB in respect of new allowances. I have written and given evidence to the board about the fact of the allowance, which is my responsibility. I think that this is an appropriate way of doing things. I am not sure that the SSRB would have been in a better position to make a judgment. I happen to believe that it is importantI hope that he agrees, as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committeethat we put a cap on the paid-for envelopes.
John Bercow: I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on his appointment. Some of us remember that in an earlier incarnation, under the tutelage of the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), his mellifluous tones had a soothing impact on the House in all sorts of difficult circumstances.
On the use of the allowance, will the Leader of the House clarify the position on the content that broadly would and would not be permissible? Paragraph 10 on page 4 of the Members Estimate Committees report, which is on the scope of the allowance, states on the one hand that unsolicited mailing may be undertaken, but on the other it cites the caveat that the material should not promote one party or denigrate another. What if Members of one party, conscious of controversy surrounding a particular policy, were to seek to craft letters to go out to their constituents, perhaps en masse, that made no reference to another political party or its position, but were simply an attempt to trumpet the merits of that policy? Could the allowance be used and potentially abused for that purpose?
Mr. Straw: I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose ingenuity goes before him, will excuse me if I do not offer arbitration on specific examples. I think that the rules are fairly clear. Although the line between what is parliamentary and what is political is a fine one, it is pretty clear in practiceeveryone understands the difference. I will come on to describe what the allowance is for and what it is not for.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): As I understand it, £7,000 of the allowance may be spent on stationery and pre-paid envelopes, which will leave about £3,000 for other things such as websites[Hon. Members: No.] If I am wrong, I am sure that I will be corrected. Will the Leader of the House examine the situation at election time regarding websites that are funded by what is essentially taxpayers money?
Mr. Heath: Of course, it is information that I require. Let me bring the Leader of the House back to the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When the Leader was talking about spending more than the £7,000 limit on pre-paid envelopes, I thought that I heard him say, with nods of approbation from others who might or might not be in the Chamber, that other allowances could be used to increase the spending on pre-paid envelopes beyond £7,000, which would make the limit a nonsense. As I understand it, paragraph 19 of the Members Estimate Committees report clearly forbids the issue of pre-paid envelopes beyond the £7,000 limit. Is that correct?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is correcthe says what I hope that I said. It will be possible for Members to use the allowance to pay for the postage of communications above and beyond the £7,000 for pre-paid envelopes, but it will not be possible to use any other allowance to pay for additional envelopes over the £7,000 limit.
Mr. Straw: We were advised that if we wanted the staff to have effective control, we would have to set the limit at £7,000full stop. If the system does not work properly, I am sure that the House will be able to review it in due course.
Allow me to give the House further information, which, after communing through the ether, has now arrivedthis shows the power of prayer to those who dispute it. A few hon. Members have been asked to repay costs for pre-paid envelopes to the Serjeant, usually because of a misunderstanding about the rules. The sums are usually small: the cost of a few hundred envelopes.
I am reminded that I wrote to the SSRB in advance of discussions on the allowance. It gave its blessing and said that it would return to the matter in its evidence when the triennial review is published in the summer.
This is a relatively short debate, but I have already been speaking for 24 minutesI have been taking interventions for 22 minutes and speaking for a coupleso I will canter through what the allowance is not for and what it is for. It is not for party political advocacy or for Members to undermine the reputation of others. It is not to give incumbents an advantage over challengers. Accordingly, the report states that the allowance would not be used for fundraising, encouraging people to join a party, campaigning for or against a candidate, or advancing arguments to promote a particular political party or organisation. As I have said, the boundaries between parliamentary and party political work can be difficult to draw, but we all understand where they lie.
The Department of Finance and Administration and the Fees Office are accustomed to handling the distinction in respect of constituency reports and newsletters, which are sent out by Members on both sides of the House and are a useful initiative.
All members of the MEC who have considered the matter know that there are occasions when Members on both sides of the House make mistakes. That is especially a danger in respect of the ever-changing world of websites, in which the rules have not kept pace with developments. The MEC saw evidence of websites of Members of all three major parties that were not in accordance with the current rules. If those websites had been submitted as a hard-copy draft of an annual report, they would never have got past the Department of Finance and Administration. In fact, I do not think that anyone would have had the cheek to put them forward. However, the websites were in place and using public money for purposes other than parliamentary purposes.
Websites that are funded from the communications allowance should be used only for parliamentary purposes. To ensure that there is much better control, we have decided to make the rules clear and to say that it will not be acceptable for Members to allow publicly funded web pages to be contained in another domain or website, and vice versa. Members will have a parliamentary website, and they may have separate websites if they wish to fund them from other sources. Parliamentary websites will close down when Parliament is dissolved after a general election is called.
A website must comply with the same rules on the content of material as any other publication, and it must contain on the home page a statement that it is funded from parliamentary allowances. Any links to other sites must make it clear electronically that the reader is leaving the parliamentary-funded website. However, websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated and it is important that the MEC should have asked the DFA to monitor website content so that the MEC can be assured that the allowances are being used for the stated purposes.
As I have said, we have proposed a level of £10,000 per Member, and we think that that is reasonable. It will go hand in hand with the establishment of a cap on envelopes. Mostincluding mespend an average of between £4,500 and £5,000. Most Members fall on the normal distribution curve, spending between £2,500 and £7,000, but some were spending considerably more. That will now end. The estimated take-up is about 90 per cent.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The Leader of the House has talked about his own postage, which is average. Does he believe that in communicating with his constituents in Blackburn he will need the use of the £10,000 additional communications allowance?
I may do. To make the reverse of the incumbents point, I am lucky enough to represent a single town and to have served it for a long timeI am now in my 28th year. It has an evening paper that circulates in only five constituencies, and the BBC has
wisely sited Radio Lancashires headquarters in Blackburn rather than any other town in Lancashire. All that makes communication with constituents easier. Serving a single town makes it much easier for me to hold open-air meetings, as I still do, in the centre of town and to hold residents meetings around the town
Mr. Straw: That is true. If I represented a series of villages, communication would be more difficult. I have, for the first time ever, sent round an annual report, approved in every particular of course by the Fees Office, and it seems to have been well received. People have been interested to learn what I have been doing and how to contact me at my surgeries. Rather than increasing my incumbency support, it has just led to a much higher demand on my staff in terms of my surgeries.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Although the proposal is advantageous to me, as to all of us, I have the most profound reservations about it. It will be an exercise in shameless self-promotion. It will be used to tell people how wonderful we are, and that will be paid for by our constituents. It is a worthy objective, but I caution my right hon. Friend that it may do more harm than good.
Mr. Straw: I very rarely disagree with my hon. Friend, but I disagree profoundly with what he has just said. I do not happen to think that the annual report that I sent out for the first time was in the category that he describes, nor is the work that the hon. Member for Castle Point described. He said that he had received a petition from some 8,000 of his constituents expressing concern about the siting of a liquid petroleum gas terminal on Canvey Island. My hon. Friend may not know Canvey Island, but I do, and it already has many similar sites. Responding to that is not shameless self-promotion; it is doing a Members job. I resist my hon. Friends suggestion, which is not worthy of him.
Bob Spink: Rather than the proposal being advantageous to Members, does the Leader of the House agree that our constituents might find it advantageous to them for us to tell them what is going on, keep them involved and give them another means of contact with us? Like me, he will know no Members who would knowingly abuse the system. It will be up to Members to use the system with good will. We are all honourable Members and we will all do that.
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