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Mr. Straw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The House will credit me with spending 18 years in opposition without complaining about that fact, except within my party, or about the Government’s use of incumbency. Nor did I suggest that the voting system had disadvantaged us. I thought that we were in opposition because we had failed to convince enough voters to vote for us and we needed to change our ways. We all need to be concerned about the distance between the electors and the elected, and if we are to improve that we must not just ask for support at elections, but
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explain to people what we are doing between elections and provide them with reassurance.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the proposals are accepted, it will not be compulsory to use the £10,000? If people do not want to use it to tell their electorate how wonderful they are, they do not have to do so. Does the proposal include a provision that the allowance will be paid only to those people who vote for it?

Mr. Straw: Now my hon. Friend asks too much. He is right to say that use of the allowance is not compulsory. Many of the allowances are not used at the moment. I use slightly less than the full office costs and staffing allowances. As for who will use it, let us wait and see, but I suspect that there will be some difference between those who vote against the allowance and those who then use it.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House agree that the British public are not stupid? It would be extremely foolish for Members to send communications that were obviously shameless self-promotion, because that would backfire on them. We must use the allowance carefully because the public will be watching. Communication should be about issues that affect them and that are important to them.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend. Experience has shown that the public see through those who go in for what my hon. Friend describes. In her case, when we had the tragedy of the Chinese cockle pickers—with which she dealt expertly—she did get more publicity, but it was not a question of shameless self-publicity. Rather, it was a Member of Parliament doing her job well. It was entirely fair that her constituents should have recognised that at the following election. That was democracy in action.

I have said enough about this allowance. It has been the subject of careful consideration by the MEC, on which all parties are represented, and I commend it to the House.

1.58 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I begin by welcoming the Deputy Leader of the House to his new role. I am sure he was delighted, as was the Leader of the House, that the Prime Minister was able to appoint him just in time for the recess Adjournment debate tomorrow.

I wish to emphasise how important today’s debate is. The world moves on, the style and manner of Government move on, and Parliament must move on, too. It is vital to our democracy that Parliament remains relevant to the outside world and remains capable of serving it well. In recent weeks, we have debated reform of the other place and party funding. Today’s debate might attract less attention from outside, but how we do our job as MPs, how we hold the Government to account and how we communicate with our electorate are all issues that are crucial to the health of our democracy.

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We have come a long way since Edmund Burke gave his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774. Modern Members of Parliament—perhaps I should say most modern Members of Parliament—do not see themselves just as expert deliberators, aloof from their constituents. Yes, we are deliberators and debaters, holding the Government to account, but we are also representatives of our communities. As such, we want to listen to and communicate with our constituents. I suspect that if we did not, we would enjoy the same fate as Mr. Burke, who was turfed out at the next election. Perhaps I am being unfair to Burke, because even in his address to the electors of Bristol he said that

I hope that even the traditionalists among us will agree that Members need to be able to communicate properly with their constituents, and I agree with the Government that if we are to do so, the rules need to change. However, we do not agree with the proposals in the communications allowance motion tabled by the Leader of the House.

I recognise that the proposals have been discussed and agreed by the Members Estimate Committee, and that the House is agreed on the need to tackle the overuse and potential abuse of stationery, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said earlier. I am a member of the Committee, and I agree that the issue needs to be addressed, but, as I made clear in the previous debate on the issue and on a number of other occasions, I fear that what is proposed will not just replace the abuse of stationery supplies and bring Parliament up to date but will give an enormous taxpayer-funded advantage to sitting Members of Parliament.

The Leader of the House is effectively proposing that each hon. Member should get a £13,000 increase in expenses, because we would keep the incidental expenses provision, which will go above £20,000, we would get a new communications allowance of £10,000 and, allied to that, Mr. Speaker will cap the stationery allowance at £7,000. The total adds up to an increase of £13,000 because the £7,000 cap on stationery is £3,000 more than the average amount spent by Members, so on average, there would be an extra £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for each Member.

Members talk sincerely about the need to communicate properly with our constituents, but we owe it to them to make sure that we spend their taxes wisely. Does the House really believe that all constituents think that we spend their taxes wisely? We all know what the reaction was of the press and the people when our travel expenses were published recently. It is fair to say that people’s scepticism about politicians led them to think that we all had our noses in the trough. Of course, that is not true. There is a need to ensure that the budget and expenses available to MPs enable us to do our jobs effectively, and there is a responsibility on the media to be careful in their reporting of such matters, but we must be mindful of the views of those who bestow on us the privilege of sitting in Parliament.

According to the official figures, several Members already claim more than £20,000 a year in stationery and postage costs. I see that the hon. Member for
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Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is in his place in the Chamber, and we may well hear from him later on how he spent £37,000 of taxpayers’ money on stationery. When we last debated the subject, he said in Hansard on 1 November 2006, in column 355, volume 451, that that was “a matter of pride” to him, and that that spending made him a good Member of Parliament. I look forward to hearing what else he has to say on the matter.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The right hon. Lady notified me of the fact that she would refer to me today; I got her e-mail minutes before the debate, but I am grateful even for that notice, as I had not planned to speak today. I would simply say that those people who are concerned about the issue should read my comments in the previous debate, in which I quoted a large number of constituents who were grateful to receive the information that I was providing to them. It is a matter of pride to me that I have been a high spender, because it shows that I have been working as hard as I can to keep my constituents informed. I simply regret that today’s decision will mean that I am less able to do that.

Mrs. May: I am happy to apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having given him such late notice of the fact that I intended to refer to him in the debate, although as he is the Member who has spent the most on stationery, I think it unlikely that the debate would have taken place without him being referred to. I simply point out, as I did in the previous debate, that although he says that his communications with his constituents are gladly welcomed, turnout in his constituency at the election was just 58 per cent. In fact, he had a larger drop in his percentage share of the vote than Members in neighbouring constituencies did. Perhaps he might like to think about that, and reflect that his voters might like him a little bit more if they heard from him less.

Mr. Dismore: As I say, I was not planning to speak in the debate. I simply repeat a point that I made in the previous debate: as far as I am concerned, the spending is not about trying to build an incumbency, or about trying to boost my personal vote somehow. It was about trying to keep constituents informed. Indeed, many of the people to whom I write are Conservative supporters and always will be. I have no prospect whatever of persuading them to vote for me, and I fully accept that, but it is part of our duty as Members to make sure that we keep in contact with all our constituents, of whatever political hue. I do not regard that as part of a vote-building operation.

Mrs. May: I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I refer him to the comments that the Leader of the House made in opening the debate, in which he referred to the need for Members of Parliament to encourage greater interest in what is happening in Parliament, and our communications are part of that. I suggest to the hon. Member for Hendon that the 58 per cent. turnout at the election indicates that despite all his communications, he is not able to encourage people to participate in the democratic process to the extent to which they do in some other constituencies.

Jim Sheridan: The right hon. Lady is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, but when we send out
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annual reports, as I believe she does regularly, who actually pays for them? Secondly, will she discourage Members of her party who decide not to vote for the proposals not to exceed the £7,000 limit, if the proposal is accepted?

Mrs. May: On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, nobody will be able to exceed the £7,000 limit, because there will be a cap, and once they have reached £7,000, no more envelopes and stationery will be available to them. On annual reports, if he would like to look at a copy of my annual report, he will see that it is paid out of my incidental expenses provision. I am able to communicate with my constituents with the expenses provisions already available to Members of Parliament.

Jo Swinson: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: I will give way one more time, and then I will make some progress.

Jo Swinson: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. She makes the point that the IEP enables us to communicate with constituents. Does she accept that for some Members, perhaps those in London or other areas with very high rents, the IEP is not sufficient to enable them to do that? It would perhaps be better to deal with those who suffer from that problem by providing a different rate of IEP for people with particularly high rent rates. That would be better than using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and increasing the expenses for everyone.

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady makes a valid point: many Members who represent constituencies similar to mine, Maidenhead in the south-east, find it difficult, within the IEP, to rent premises in the constituency and have sufficient funds available to do the other things for which the IEP is intended. That is a separate issue, and the Senior Salaries Review Body might well consider it an issue for Members of Parliament that is to be dealt with in an entirely different way.

To go back to the issue of high spending by some Members of Parliament on stationery and supplies, I—and many others, I suspect—question how Members with very large claims are able to use that amount of stationery and envelopes while staying within current rules. Of course we are all aware of cases that have come before the Committee on Standards and Privileges or the Serjeant at Arms on the potential misuse of stationery and envelopes—that is, their use in ways that should not be paid for by the taxpayer. Indeed, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has said that the misuse of Members’ allowances is the most common accusation relating to sleaze. He says:

I would ask the Government why, if that is already a serious problem, they support adding to it by creating the new allowance. Of course political communication is necessary, but it must be funded by the parties and not the taxpayer. Otherwise, we run the serious risk of favouring incumbent politicians at the expense of their rivals and opponents.

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I would say to the Leader of the House that it is strange that he is supporting a new allowance for incumbent Members at the very time when the Government are supporting caps on local campaigning expenditure for their political opponents. Some people have described the communication allowance as a “save our seats” fund. I would not say that, because I am not sure that anything will save Labour seats if the Chancellor is its leader, but we need to make sure that taxpayers’ money is not used illegitimately for electoral advantage.

Members will undoubtedly argue that in modern times politicians must communicate more with their constituents, and I certainly agree, but modern times also offer modern means of communication, and those do not necessarily involve spending great sums of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, Members increasingly rely not on post and the press, but on websites, e-mail, blogs, text messages, and social networking services such as Facebook.

Martin Salter: On that theme, does the right hon. Lady agree—and will she read into the record—that it is fundamentally wrong for a Member of Parliament’s annual report to include a party political logo?

Mrs. May: The rules are absolutely clear on what can, and cannot, be included in an hon. Member’s annual report.

Martin Salter: That is a no, then.

Mrs. May: As I have made clear, the rules are absolutely clear on what can, and cannot, be included in annual reports. Many hon. Members ask the Department of Finance and Administration, as I do, to check the text of annual reports to ensure that we do indeed abide by the rules and do not risk going outside them.

I accept that the role of a modern Member of Parliament is very different from that of previous generations of politicians. We are all familiar with the stories of times gone by. Enoch Powell used to compose handwritten letters to constituents in the Library. [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is doing his Enoch Powell impersonation from a sedentary position—and very good it is too. I remember a story about a former Member who used to read his constituents’ letters on the Terrace so that he could drop them into the river. I suppose that that is one way of keeping communication costs down, but I do not imagine that many Members would keep their seats for long by doing so these days.

I accept that the rules need to be adapted to reflect modern circumstances. For example, it is odd that if we receive 50 letters on a particular subject, we are supposed to write 50 different replies to meet the rules about circulars. It is sensible that that should change. If we receive letters about a planning application from 10 houses in a small street, we are not allowed to write to the other houses in the street. It is sensible that that should change. As Members, we are increasingly involved with community groups, campaigns and social action projects. It is sensible that we should be permitted to contact them without waiting for them to approach us. There are therefore good reasons for changing the rules on the expenditure of Members’ allowances, but there is
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little justification for increasing Members’ budgets. My personal preference is for Members to be given a single budget that would cover office costs, communications and stationery and for them to be free to choose how they spend it within the rules and within the budget. That would get round the rather strange situation that will arise, and to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred, in which there will be a limit on the number of prepaid envelopes that can be used by hon. Members. However, they can use other allowances to communicate through the post with their constituents and to buy postage stamps for that purpose. Indeed, they can vire money from their staffing allowance to do so. I think that there is a reason for changing the rules, but I do not think that there is a reason for introducing a new communications allowance, which will enhance the role of incumbents.

May I touch briefly on the motion on the tabling of questions during September? If Parliament does not sit in September, it is absolutely right that Members should have the opportunity to hold Ministers to account. The system for questions and statements last year was a welcome intervention, and I am sure that the House is grateful to the Leader of the House for introducing it. As with last year, this year’s motion proposes that Members should table questions for three days for answer on three subsequent days. I see no reason why Members should not be able to table questions throughout the recess, and the Leader of the House should consider that. I hoped that the changes this year would extend last year’s opportunities, and I am disappointed that they do not do so. As the party conference season evolves, the need for the House to have such a long recess may disappear. I would not argue that conferences themselves should disappear, although I gather that that happened to the Labour party spring conference this year, but I would certainly argue for a change of approach to them. Conferences are not a chance for a holiday, as some people have viewed them in the past, but an opportunity for healthy political debate. I have long made the case for conferences to be held at weekends and in different locations to enable that to take place.

John Bercow: I agree that right hon. and hon. Members certainly ought to be able to table written questions throughout the recess. Given that, on the whole, the Leader of the House, in common with a number of his predecessors, has been pretty demanding of ministerial colleagues in asserting the need for timeous replies, does my right hon. Friend agree that he should be no less exacting in his requirements of Ministers for answers to questions during the recess than he would be for answers to questions during term-time?

Mrs. May: I entirely agree. Indeed, it is the manner in which the Leader of the House has shown himself willing both to place requirements on his ministerial colleagues and to accede to requests from the House for greater timeliness of responses from ministerial colleagues that leads me to hope that, in relation to questions in September, he will make just those points to his ministerial colleagues, and reconsider limiting the opportunities for questions during the recess to only three days.

Mr. Straw: On the first point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), yes, I will seek
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to ensure that all those questions are answered in a timely way. That was generally the case in September, but there were some exceptions, which we followed up. As I recall, particular exceptions concerned Departments that had been overwhelmed by questions. However, the Departments are there to answer questions, and that is what is expected of them.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second concern, it is just a practical point, but may I make it clear to the House that I do not regard those arrangements as set in stone? They ought to be kept under regular review. My concern, in tabling the resolution as a permanent one is to ensure that there is a facility for questions in September. If we can extend it, so much the better.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that response. As I said, he is always willing to listen to the House, and I am grateful for what he said on the matter.

Holding the Government to account and how we do so and do our full job as Members of Parliament are what today’s votes are about. However, like the curate’s egg, the motions are good in part. As I said, the opportunity for questions in September is welcome, and we will support it. The rules regarding Members’ allowances undoubtedly need updating, and I certainly support changing them, but we cannot, and will not, support a new taxpayer-funded allowance that risks becoming a spin budget for incumbent MPs.

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