Communications Allowance — [Frank Cook in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 2:30 pm ar 3 Mawrth 2010.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham 2:30, 3 Mawrth 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook, as I have on a number of other occasions. As this is likely to be my final appearance in Westminster Hall, I am particularly pleased that you are chairing our debate. I am sure that you and other Members present share my sadness at the news of the death of Michael Foot, a former Labour party leader and a great parliamentarian.

Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed the slightly convoluted history of the title of this general debate. Suffice it to say that the debate has been secured. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House in her place, ready to respond to the debate. Although it appears that the House has consigned all power over MPs' communications expenditure to an outside body-the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority-at least for the brief remainder of this Parliament my hon. Friend has ministerial responsibility for the winding up of the communications allowance, hence the title of the debate.

I find it surprising that the House should have given over responsibility for something so basic to the democratic process as a Member's communications with his or her constituents to an outside body-one that has relatively little experience of political struggle on the ground. We already know to all intents and purposes what that body has decided about the future of communications expenditure: it has trodden in the footsteps of Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life in its, in my view, somewhat cursory treatment of the communications allowance. I shall say a little more about the Kelly report shortly.

The intentions of IPSA are set out in its recent consultation document. There will be no more communications allowance; expenditure will be allowed only on advertising for constituency meetings and advice surgeries and on contact cards. The document states:

"All other currently available types of communications expenditure will be excluded", so there will be no more annual reports, and no more websites.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

Not at this early stage. I have plenty to say, and I shall yield the Floor to Opposition Members once I have developed my argument a little further.

The communications allowance was ushered in by the Puttnam Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in 2005, introduced as recently as April 2007 and endorsed by the Senior Salaries Review Body less than a year ago. It has been used by about 600 Members of Parliament, including the majority of Conservative Members. Yet the communications allowance has cursorily been brushed aside-indeed, there will now be less funding for communications than existed prior to the introduction of the allowance. That is extraordinary.

It is clear to me that communications expenditure has become a victim of the backlash following the expenses scandals. In no way could that element be the object of personal financial gain, yet we Members of Parliament have allowed this to happen almost without process and, as far as I can see, almost without debate. Well, I protest, and this is the debate. IPSA has apparently carried out a consultation on expenses, including communications expenses. I trust that today's debate will form part of its consideration.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

The right hon. Gentleman says that the communications allowance could not be seen as being in the financial interests of Members. It may be some time since he was a candidate opposing a sitting Member of Parliament, but when he did so, that sitting MP did not have, in addition to all his staff funding, £10,000 a year to spend on self-congratulatory literature. By the sound of it, if he had his way, such literature would be going through people's letterboxes all the way to election day, thus distorting our democracy, supporting incumbents and not freeing up and allowing a fair playing field. That is why I turned up here today. The communications allowance is fundamentally corrupt and it cannot be got rid of too soon.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I find that to be a somewhat predictable intervention. I shall deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Annibynnol, Castle Point

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

No. I think that the decision to scrap the communications allowance is wrong, and I want to explain why. The communications it funds between an MP and his or her constituents are of great importance to democratic accountability. What is more important at this time than the links of accountability between MPs and their constituents? In passing, the withdrawal of the communications allowance creates a particular difficulty in highly transient big city seats such as mine, where MPs have a huge challenge in trying to make electors aware of their activities.

In the absence of any effective limit on pre-election expenditure, the withdrawal of the communications allowance will severely and unfairly disadvantage incumbents facing highly funded campaigns by opposing candidates. I know that my audience has been waiting for this reference: I obviously think of the noble Lord Ashcroft and his works, but I assure the House that it does not end with him and I intend to show how.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I shall not give way. The truth is that, against such well heeled campaigns, the communications allowance is not much, but it at least offers a line of defence against the attempted purchase of parliamentary seats. I remind the House that I make my case for the communications allowance-

Photo of David Davies David Davies Ceidwadwyr, Sir Fynwy

On a point of order, Mr. Cook. May I establish whether that British citizen was warned that such a disgraceful reference would be made to him? We know that the Labour Party is quite happy to sell passports to people such as Lakshmi Mittal in return for donations. Can we be told whether or not-

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

Order. I have the point. [Interruption.] Order. I will not allow this sitting to descend to the level of a bar-room brawl. Let us have some sense.

That was not a point of order. Furthermore, if right hon. and hon. Members were prepared to listen to what is being said, I might be able to hear it, too. Do not bring the behaviour of the main Chamber down to this Chamber, where we usually concentrate on having a fairly delicate, logical, clear and polite exchange of views. That is what Parliament is all about.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Further to that point of order, Mr. Cook. My understanding is that critical reference, and certainly reference in the strong terms used by the right hon. Gentleman, should not be made about a Member of the other place without notice being given. We cannot allow people to abuse the House in that way-

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

Order. I have your point. It would appear that my rationale has not been understood. I stated that if right hon. and hon. Members were prepared to curb their standards of conduct, I might be able to hear what is being said. I will not allow any Member here, regardless of political complexion, to impugn anyone else in the House. That is all the more reason why everybody should be listening to what is being said-and allowing me to listen at the same time.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I was about to remind the House that I make my case for the communications allowance on entirely disinterested grounds. Members may be aware that I announced some two years ago that I would retire at the general election, so I have no personal stake in the allowance. I make the case for it because it is right in democratic principle and because I believe its withdrawal could lead to injustice. I shall now give way to Bob Spink, because I am particularly fond of him as an independent-minded Member. However, I propose to proceed with due haste thereafter.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Annibynnol, Castle Point

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am grateful to him also for bringing this matter before the House. It is important to inform, engage and empower our constituents and any decent Member of Parliament will use and will have used the allowance to do just that-for example, to inform constituents about claiming pensions credit and changes to national insurance for carers from 1 April. The cynical and negative view of the communications allowance that we have just heard from Her Majesty's official Opposition is disgraceful, and that is what brings this House into disrepute.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I am glad that I allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene at that point.

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.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I served with the hon. Gentleman on the European Scrutiny Committee, which was of course an enormous pleasure, so I will give way to him, but to nobody else.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

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.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to answer that?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I will, because I have actually made a charge.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I will give way to Mr. Binley, but I hope that he will be brief.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Let Mr. Field have his say.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

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"-


Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

Thank you, Mr. Cook.

Let me reprise that quotation from Lord Rennard:

"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.]

The "trigger" has not been restored and the result has been a free-for-all in campaign expenditure in a number of constituencies.

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 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.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

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.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

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.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Llafur, Streatham

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?

I want to bring my remarks to a close by drawing hon. Members' attention to a debate in the House last year and words that were spoken in it, which are that

"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."-[Hansard, 2 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 666.]

Those were the words of 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."-[Hansard, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c.637-8.]

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on both counts. Why, therefore, do the Lib Dems allow Mr. Nicholson to get away with such blatant flouting of their policy? It is entirely clear to me that we need local spending limits between elections, and I regret that no party has taken action to restore such limits. We need to return to the position we were in before 2000. Nevertheless, when there has been excessive spending by candidates standing in opposition, the communications allowance has at least offered a modest means of achieving some balance in communications with constituents.

It is right in principle that MPs should be resourced to inform their constituents about their work in Parliament and in the constituency; such communications can encourage political engagement. I regret that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority seems intent on imposing draconian limits on MPs' communications, and I hope that this debate will help to change its mind.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

Order. I need to make one or two points clear. I have been very tolerant with the opening speech, allowing it to get rather broad and cover inter-election campaign funding. Having done that with the opening speech, I have to be more tolerant than I intended to be with other contributions.

I must also remind hon. Members that this is a 90-minute debate, which must finish at 4 o'clock, but, as Chair, I am required to ensure that, 30 minutes before that, I enable the first of the three winding-up speeches from the Front Benchers to begin. We have, therefore, less than 26 minutes left for general debate. Three written submissions have already been given to me from Members who hope to catch my eye, and they are all from one side of the House. There are none from the other side of the House, although it would appear that a number of Members on that side want to speak.

I shall start with the first written submission, and then go on to a random sample. I call Gordon Prentice.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

On a point of order, Mr. Cook. I had been given to understand from documents that were provided to us as Members that for debates in Westminster Hall no benefit or advantage was given to those who submitted such written advance notice, and that we would be treated equally if we simply came and made it clear that we wanted to speak, by standing up as we are doing now. Will you please clarify whether that is the case?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

The hon. Gentleman seeks an explanation from me of my decision. Normally, the Chair would refuse to do that, but I do not mind making it clear today that Members who have shown the courtesy of contacting the Chair deserve a little more consideration, in my view. I call Gordon Prentice.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

I hope that hon. Members realise that this is, of course, taking up time for debate. I call Andrew Tyrie-briefly please.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

Mr. Cook, will you clarify whether this now sets a precedent for how people are called in Westminster Hall debates?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

That is hardly a point when a general election is so imminent and I may not be here afterwards. I call Gordon Prentice.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Llafur, Pendle 3:04, 3 Mawrth 2010

I have a lot to say, but I shall compress it because I know that so many colleagues on both sides of the House want to make a contribution. I begin by saying that what happens in Britain is not unique. I know a lot about Canada-I chair the all-party Canada group. Canadians can mail their MPs without putting a stamp on the envelope. Canadian MPs can send out annual reports; they can do what we do here, so what happens in Britain is not unique. The big problem that we face is that there are effectively no spending limits except in the immediate run-up to a general election-in the six months before it. Before that, however, anything goes. We have heard about Streatham.

Perhaps I am making a party political point here, but my jaw dropped last night when my colleague, Mr. Love, told me that his Conservative challenger spent £142,000 in the last three months of 2009-that is documented in Electoral Commission figures. There is no level playing field-I hate using that term. It is possible, and we are seeing it happen, to buy an election. We heard about the difficultly of contacting constituents in small inner-city seats. Many years ago, I was the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council and I know the constituency like the back of my hand. There is a flip side, however: my Pendle constituency is 65 square miles. I do not know how many Hammersmith and Fulhams you could put in that. It is impossible to contact my constituents by just walking up the farm track-there are not the hours in the day. The way to contact people in a far-flung rural constituency is to pay people-Royal Mail-to do it.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Llafur, Pendle

I have my own speech to make, and if the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Cook, he will be able to make his own.

When the communications allowance was brought in, I did not use it for the first year. I felt uncomfortable, to be honest. Since then, I have been 545th in the list. In the first year, I spent £2,349, on surgery advertisements and so on, but people were saying to me, "What on earth are you doing? You're doing nothing down at Westminster, but we've been getting all this stuff from Andrew Stephenson". I was getting letters in my office addressed to Andrew Stephenson MP, the MP for Pendle. He may well be the MP in a couple of months' time. It is not just people in this room who are listening to this debate, it is people outside as well, and he could very well be the next MP.

I used my communications allowance on five occasions, in October 2008, and in January, April, October and December 2009. My communications were not bland at all. There are no photographs of me cuddling babies, or with police officers-none of the usual stuff. In my latest parliamentary report, I complain in the article "Waiting for the ambulance" that in the West Craven part of my constituency people were having to wait ages for an ambulance, even when their situation was life-threatening. That probably did a lot of damage to my Labour Government. In an article in the previous issue, entitled "Afghanistan: What now?", I talked about my position on Afghanistan, saying that "the bloody conflict in Afghanistan drags on" and that it is now time to set a clear exit strategy. That is me speaking, not the Labour Government. In the issue before that there was the article, "Royal Mail: Save it-don't sell it"; that is not bland communication. I was arguing against the position of my own Government. I want to see Royal Mail stay in public ownership. That is not bland; it is letting people know my views. Another article was entitled, "Fat Cats slated". I had to pay money back to the Commons authorities for that.

There was one anonymous complaint. The Commons authorities could not tell me who had made the complaint, but it was about two paragraphs that I had written in one of my reports. I hope that you will allow me to read them both out, Mr. Cook, because they are, as we now know, absolutely factually correct. The first paragraph stated: "I told the Commons"-I was quoting from a Commons speech-

"the Conservative peer and donor, Lord Laidlaw, was ennobled in 2004 after promising to become a UK resident for tax purposes. He reneged on that promise and lives in tax exile in Monaco."

That is a fact, but I had to pay money back for saying what I did. In the next paragraph, I said:

"Another Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft openly admits bankrolling local Conservative Associations yet refuses to say if he pays UK taxes. He is based in the Central American tax haven of Belize."

As a result of those two paragraphs, I had to reimburse the Commons authorities. [Interruption.] No, I will not go down that road; everyone knows about Lord Ashcroft.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Llafur, Pendle

I will not. I have a lot of ground to cover, and the Member can make his own speech.

My fifth parliamentary report talked about hard choices regarding DNA, and I made it clear that my position is probably more akin to the Liberal Democrat position than the Labour Government's position. When people read my parliamentary report, therefore, they say, "Whatever his faults, this guy Gordon Prentice isn't a cipher. He's not just telling us what Labour Whips are telling him to say." They get an idea of where I am coming from.

Those were my five parliamentary reports. Now, if you will allow me, Mr. Cook, I will whistle through some material from Andrew Stephenson, who will probably be the MP in a couple of months. I have a copy of his leaflet "Andrew Stephenson Reports Back", which has just come out. I also have the February and March edition of his "Pendle Matters", which the Royal Mail delivered to all 37,000 households in Pendle; it talks about the "Year of Change" and runs to four pages. Another edition, which was delivered free to 37,000 households, talks about "Putting Pendle on the Map" and has a picture of the Leader of the Opposition. That is all since Christmas.

The December 2009 edition of "Pendle Matters", which was delivered to 37,000 households, says, "Shop Local"-unfortunately, it was printed in Guildford. I also have the October 2009 and August 2009 editions of "Pendle Matters", which were delivered to every household in my constituency. The headline in one edition reads "Cameron spells out a Plan for Change". The headline in another, which was delivered to 37,000 households, talks about "Transport in the North". Another edition has the headline "Tackling the Credit Crunch" and runs to four pages.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

On a point of order, Mr. Cook. May I ask a simple question? Are we allowed to use such props in the House?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

There is a convention on the Floor of the House that visual aids are not allowed. I cannot see what is on the leaflets that Mr. Prentice is holding up, so they are hardly visual aids. However, I can count and I can see that there is a discrepancy in terms of acreage and number, and I await his conclusions on that. I must remind hon. Members that we have about 17 minutes before I call the Front Benchers.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Llafur, Pendle

I do not want to test the patience of colleagues, so let me just say that I have too many leaflets to go through; there are three years' worth. It is not just "Pendle Matters" that is being delivered; there is loads of other stuff as well. There are six-page booklets, which look like Hello! magazine, the ads in the local papers and so on.

Let me come to my peroration. I think I have demonstrated conclusively that the next election is being bought. Election spending should be controlled; if it is not, it will be totally unfair, and rich people will be able to determine who sits in this House.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 3:14, 3 Mawrth 2010

Keith Hill, who obtained the debate, has made a huge contribution to this place. He is one of the outstanding Members of Parliament I have come across in my time here-somebody of unfailing humour, whether things are going well or badly for him. He has never rubbed my nose in it when my party is doing badly, and he has always had a big smile on his face, even when his party seems to be on its uppers.

Having said all that, I am a little surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should choose this of all subjects for his parliamentary swansong. As far as I could tell, he adduced six points in defence of the communications allowance. The first was democratic accountability. That is the sort of the phrase that is bandied around quite cheaply, but generally means very little. By listening to him, I did not really discover where exactly accountability would be increased as a consequence of the allowance.

The right hon. Gentleman then said that the allowance would act as a counterweight to Lord Ashcroft's "attempted purchase of parliamentary seats." I understand his point, and I will discuss it in a little more detail in a moment.

The right hon. Gentleman then said that it would rebuild trust. But I take the view that spending large sums of public money on self-promotion-I think that that is how people perceive it-is more likely than not to have the opposite effect, if it has any effect at all.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the allowance was important for seats with transient electorates, but that seems a rather curious point. Does it mean that the grant should be graded, so that Members in seats with the lowest churn have the lowest grant and those in seats with the highest churn have the highest grant? I found that idea extremely bizarre. The level playing field we need is not between seats, but within seats between people campaigning. Presumably, a transient electorate is as difficult for the challengers to handle as it is for the sitting MP.

In a very revealing phrase, the right hon. Gentleman said that the allowance is at least-I hope that I have got this exactly right-"needed to remind people that they do at least have an MP in place". I should hope that any MP who is doing his job would find a way of enabling at least some of his constituents to discover that they have representation at Westminster, so I do not find that argument convincing either.

The right hon. Gentleman's final argument was that the allowance is a modest means of achieving balance, which goes back to the point that I made a moment ago. I hope that I have already answered that argument a little. It is the balance within the constituency, not between constituencies, that matters.

I think that the communications allowance is a scandalous waste of public money. it was right to abolish it. It is a form of incumbency grant. Dr. Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, has said as much in unequivocal terms, and I agree with him. Incidentally, the incumbency value is measurable; it is a statistical fact. It is between one and three percentage points.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

I will not. If the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I will carry on, although that is purely for reasons of time.

The incumbency value is between one and three percentage points, but it falls away after the first re-election and scarcely shows up in the statistics after that. Interestingly, it has scarcely changed for 50 years-whatever we put in place, it seems to remain pretty much the same. Although people want the communications allowance to entrench incumbency, it does not seem to have that effect-nor, indeed, does the campaigning on the other side of the ledger.

The extra money spent in marginal seats in 2001 and 2005 for the Conservative party had the reverse effect to the one intended. In fact, the swing was two percentage points lower in 2001 in the seats where the most money was spent, which I find statistically significant. Furthermore, we later discovered from Labour literature that the Labour party had abandoned those seats, so there was not even a cancelling-out effect, which is normally the key reason why it is so difficult to identify the benefits to local campaigning.

My objection to the communications allowance is not that it may actually be effective-although it could become effective at a future date-but that it is state funding of political parties by the back door. If we want state funding-I am not against it in principle, as Mr. Heath will attest-we should explain to the electorate what we are doing and vote it in, not supply it by the back door.

Incumbency, in any case, is already being bolstered by increases in parliamentary secretarial allowances, particularly where MPs have relocated a large number of their staff to their constituencies, where I strongly suspect a number of them are engaging in campaigning rather than constituency work. I very much hope that IPSA will investigate that and clamp down on any malpractice of that type in the months and years ahead.

The right hon. Member for Streatham argued that the communications allowance is needed to offset Conservative funding in marginal seats. He emphasised that point at some length, but by making it he let the cat out of the bag and revealed his desired purpose for the communications allowance. Now we know that, in his view, the communications allowance should be and is a campaigning fund-exactly what it is designed not to be-and not the constituency allowance that he and his party dressed it up as when they encouraged the House to allow it.

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, upset that a rich donor is seeking to influence a British election by pouring money into target seats. I, too, am upset about that and about the funding being provided by a small number of big donors, including trade union bosses and corporations, as well as rich individuals. They should all go; they should all be got rid of. We need a donations cap, and I should like it to be set well below the level of £50,000 that I set out in a document, to obtain compromise. Those rich donors-the unions, corporations and rich individuals-should be wholly removed from the funding of political parties.

To his enormous credit, the Leader of the Opposition not only agrees with that view but has said so publicly on numerous occasions, and has published jointly with me a pamphlet setting out how it can be accomplished. I think he agrees with me that there is a stench in the nostrils of the electorate about the way parties are funded and he wants to do something about it.

However, the obstacle all along, I regret to say, has been the unions. The publication of the document triggered some very important talks, which took place over two years, chaired by Hayden Phillips, to get to grips with the issue. Tony Blair was involved in those talks, and he too supported the idea, as did the former head of his policy unit, Matt Taylor. Unfortunately, the Labour party did not support it. In particular, the present Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, when he became more closely involved in the talks, obstructed any progress on the key issue, which was the inclusion of unions in the cap:

"The problem was that the system could not be overhauled without some loosening of the ties between Labour and the trade unions which together contributed about £11 million a year" to Labour coffers.

"Unfortunately, that was unthinkable to large swathes" of the Labour party. Those are not my conclusions, but the conclusions of Peter Watt, the Labour general secretary, who like me participated in every one of the talks. He went on to say that the current Prime Minister had

"nothing to gain from picking this fight" with the unions.

"He needed the support of the trade unions to become Prime Minister", so we know why he engaged in so much obstructionism as well. Peter Watt continues that he

"disliked the extent to which we had to dance to the unions' tune" and that

"the trade union barons were never shy of articulating what they expected in return" for their cash. He said:

"My primary emotion during the process was intense frustration, because my own party was the biggest block to reform".

The heart of the matter is that the communications allowance was introduced with party political purposes in mind, whatever its outward name and whatever the pretence of the way it was described. Labour was the incumbent party. Anything that went only to incumbents would inevitably be of benefit to it. It has been rumbled, first by the way that Parliament has begun to examine these issues, and now by the fact that in this debate the right hon. Member for Streatham has let the cat out of the bag about the real purposes of supporting the communications allowance. I am delighted by the findings of Sir Christopher Kelly on the issue. I am very pleased that my party supports the removal of the communications allowance, and I hope that it will be implemented immediately after the election by IPSA.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

Order. I am happy to inform the House that the three main Front-Bench spokespeople have agreed to reduce their allotted time from 10 to seven minutes-not easy, but they are prepared to do it-to afford Back Benchers more time. So I appeal to everyone: I will try to get you all in, but make it brief, please, make it pointed and make it clear.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Llafur, Reading West 3:26, 3 Mawrth 2010

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Tyrie, who made an intelligent contribution to the debate. I think that my right hon. Friend Keith Hill and my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice make a fundamental mistake in equating the communications allowance to the tsunami of funds being hurled at their constituencies.

It is time I fessed up: hon. Members are looking at the father of the communications allowance. I pushed it in 2002 and 2003 and it first emerged, not through Puttnam, but through the "Connecting Parliament with the Public" report of the Modernisation Committee in 2003-04-not as a balance to what was at that time an all-but bankrupt Conservative party. If we cast our minds back to the hammering that the Conservatives got in the polls in 2001, we see that they were not a well funded political party. My objective was to create a level playing field not against party political campaigning, because that is clearly outlawed in the rules that govern the communications allowance-I am surprised that my colleagues allowed themselves to be dragged down that road-but with others active in our constituencies, such as local councillors, whether Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or independent. They can proactively communicate with their constituents and put out unsolicited letters seeking views on planning applications and all sorts of other issues. We cannot. How insane is that?

I leave this place with huge affection for the role that we undertake as Members of Parliament. The action in my constituency of which I am proudest is not when I went with the grain of public opinion, but when I went against it and campaigned for a new psychiatric hospital in the heart of my constituency and stood up for the mentally ill, who did not have a voice and were not a well funded middle-class residents group, saying, "Oh, my God, we can't have these characters running around frightening the children." Things have settled down, and I am proud that I was able to do that. I could do it because I could communicate proactively. That is what the allowance is about. It is nothing to do with Ashcroft or the bankrupt Tory party, or a Tory party whose coffers are overflowing from tax exiles or others. Let me make that clear.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Llafur, Reading West

No, I want to be very brief.

The communications allowance was brought in-no one has mentioned this-on the back of the cap on MPs' postage, which was implemented and introduced by the previous Speaker, because some Members of Parliament were taking the mickey with the House of Commons free post. I have always been a high user of it, but I think very much as Bob Spink, who is not in his place, does-or Mr. Wilshire, among the Conservatives. He had a huge issue in his constituency-the closure of Ashford hospital, I think. How could he deal with receiving a petition of perhaps 15,000-I do not know how many people wrote to him-on the subject? Within the rules, because he was reacting to what people wrote to him about, he was able to reply to them and keep them informed and engaged in that campaign to keep Ashford hospital open. He was successful, but because of abuse by one or two Members, we were taking away the tools to do the job, so something had to be put in its place.

Before Opposition Members get too aerated about the issue, I point out that only one of them has not claimed the allowance. It was not fought tooth and nail by the Conservative party. I was there and I know. A lot of the points in favour of the introduction of the communications allowance were conceded by the Conservatives. In the debate in 2007, when Parliament eventually got around to introducing the communications allowance, Mr. Hands said in response to me:

"The hon. Gentleman is speaking of allowing MPs to engage in reactive communication with constituents, which I am in favour of."-[Hansard, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1530.]

The problem is that the ability to engage in reactive communication with our constituents was hidebound by the cap on MPs' postage. We had to have something to put in its place.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Llafur, Reading West

No I will not.

I reject Sir Christopher Kelly's analysis. I wrote to the Members Estimate Committee to pull apart his arguments. In paragraph 8.6 of his report, he acknowledged that the communications allowance was introduced in part to compensate for the cap on postage, but he made no recommendation that the cap be lifted. He stated that

"some MPs of all three main parties make use of it."

What he did not mention was that only 43 MPs have not claimed the communications allowance.

There is a degree of hypocrisy, is there not, in the Leader of the Opposition calling the allowance

"nothing less than old-fashioned, state-sanctioned propaganda"?

I have listened to the protestations of Mr. Stuart, who tells us that it is corrupt. Well, he was quite happy to claim £4,679 of corrupt money. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham says that he had no choice but to claim it.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Llafur, Reading West

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in two seconds. Perhaps he had to take that money to fund a website, but I would like to see the kind of website one can get for £5,351, which is what he claimed in 2007-08. Is he telling the House that he spent that money on a website and nothing else? I would like him to clarify.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am happy to clarify. My point was that one has no choice about something like a website. In 2007, I made the point that it was not right because of the postage cap to introduce a communications allowance of up to £10,000 for every Member, which clearly gave encouragement to use that amount. That is different from the one-off occasion when one has a mass petition, which the hon. Gentleman was describing, because that will not be the case for all 646 Members.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Llafur, Reading West

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that non-clarification, but I note that he did not clarify whether he spent all of the £5,000 on his website.

To conclude, it will be a sad day if at the end of this Parliament-a Parliament whose reputation has been traduced by a sloppy expenses system and sloppy behaviour on our part collectively-if we single out the one allowance about which there was no controversy in The Daily Telegraph or on the stolen disc. The allowance probably worked-albeit perhaps imperfectly-far more effectively than our second home allowance, our employment of relations, and the ridiculous fripperies and luxuries that people decided the taxpayer should fork out for. It is a shame, when politics and the role of Members of Parliament are being traduced, that we do not have the simple tools to do what we are sent here to do, which is to speak up for the communities that represent us. Not giving us the tools to do that is ridiculous.

I end with a quote from a Conservative, Lord Norton of Louth, who gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee and whom the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness described in the House as a great man. He said:

"If the constituency demand increases-which it has, decade by decade-if you cannot close off the demand, you have to manage the supply side...There is also a resource implication."

There is a resource implication. We will not serve our constituents as well as we could if we are not given the tools to do the job or the resources to fund proper, non-partisan communication.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

There are only five minutes remaining.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South 3:34, 3 Mawrth 2010

I will make two quick and simple points, but first I congratulate Keith Hill on initiating the debate. I add my comments on his friendliness. I have always considered him a friendly chap and now consider him a friend. I therefore have some sympathy with what he says.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

Communications allowance.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Of course, I shall come straight to the communications allowance.

I agree with the remarks of Mr. Prentice on spending prior to the election. To my mind, as an old-time agent, the figures that have been mentioned are quite obscene. They do have a distorting impact on elections. It was foolish to enact the law that allowed such sums to be spent, and I thought so at the time. The figures we see today confirm that my judgment then was correct.

All I can say is, why the hell did Labour bring that law in? I did not understand that for one minute. It was never going to benefit Labour, even if it was introduced from a political perspective. It was absolutely crazy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but want to introduce a bit of balance about where the law came from.

Receiving so many leaflets would put me off. In some respects, it does harm to put such nonsense through people's letterboxes week in, week out, month in, month out. I know that I am doing harm to our worthy candidate in that part of the world, but quite frankly I get totally pissed off with it. Sorry, Mr. Cook, I withdraw that remark.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Finally, non-doms have been mentioned and they do have an impact on this matter. Between 2001 and 2008, the Labour party received more donations from non-doms than any other party. The amount was £8.9 million, compared with the £5.6 million that the Conservatives received. A little understanding of the balance in this matter has some import in the debate. That is all I wish to say to provide a little fairness. Thank you for calling me, Mr. Cook.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

There are two minutes remaining. I call Martin Linton.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Llafur, Battersea 3:37, 3 Mawrth 2010

It is important to distinguish two issues in the debate. The first is the tsunami of party propaganda that has flooded through people's letterboxes. That is relevant because it is the justification that Lord Ashcroft himself gave for opposing the communications allowance. A completely separate issue is the right of MPs to report back to their constituencies. I am much more exercised about the second point. We must warn the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to think the issue through before it takes action.

When we spend money through the communications allowance, we cannot mention the party, but can only describe what an MP has done. The opposition does not come from my local Conservative candidate's leaflets, much as they flood through the letterbox. I am trying to counteract the effects of the council newspaper, which has a staff of six, including graphic designers and former journalists. It uses its 30 or 40 pages every two months to claim credit not only for what the council does, but for what the Government do. For example, the new lifts at Clapham Junction station were funded by £10 million from the Government and the council threw in £300,000 for pavement improvements. In other words, 97 per cent. of the funding came from the Government and 3 per cent. from Wandsworth council. Of course, the council newspaper gave huge publicity to the £300,000 it spent on the pavements and none to the Government.

In contrast to the 30 or 40-page bi-monthly council newspaper, I have a bi-monthly newsletter called "the Bugle", which stretches to two pages. It is important that MPs are able to draw their constituents' attention to what they are fighting for and what the Government are doing in their constituencies. Thanks to the communications allowance, I have been able to tell people things that they cannot learn about anywhere else, such as the five health centres that are planned in the constituency, the tube link to Clapham Junction and my opposition to 42-storey tower blocks at Clapham Junction. People regard that newsletter not as propaganda, but as an important source of information that they cannot get from any other place-[Interruption.] No, I will not give way. I have two minutes. I am sorry, but I am not going to give any of that time away.

It is very important to preserve the ability of MPs to report back what they are doing in the constituency. The argument about party propaganda is totally irrelevant. The position should not be characterised as party propaganda versus straight news in newspapers. The newsletters I put out are people's source of information about local issues. Newspapers, such as the Evening Standard and so on, have a relentlessly negative spin on politics. MPs' newsletters-mine has never been complained against-can perform a very valuable role.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 3:40, 3 Mawrth 2010

I am glad the extra time Martin Linton took came out of my allocation, Mr. Cook. I congratulate Keith Hill on securing the debate. I have to say that it has been extremely muddled, because, as Martin Salter said, two entirely different topics have been discussed.

One issue is party funding and the hugely adverse effect the lack of limits on party funding has on the election contests in marginal constituencies across the country. That was amply demonstrated by Mr. Prentice and, it would appear, by the right hon. Member for Streatham, although that is the only constituency I have ever heard of where the Liberal Democrats are outspending the other parties. I am delighted to know that there is at least one constituency in which we have some assets. I draw hon. Members' attention to the comment on "The News Quiz" last week that the Conservatives are funded by multi-millionaire businessmen, the Labour party by the unions and the Liberal Democrats by a bring-and-buy sale in Truro. That is actually largely the case.

Having said that, what the right hon. Gentleman said when quoting my hon. Friend 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. 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 do 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.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

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. 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.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:46, 3 Mawrth 2010

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 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

"to assist with the important task of improving the engagement of the House with the public" in part due to

"the extraordinary increase in constituency demands and expectations"-[Hansard, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 301.]

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

"will give an enormous taxpayer-funded advantage to sitting Members of Parliament".-[Hansard, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1524.]

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. Dr. Wright said:

"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."-[Hansard, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1522.]

And Mr. Mullin said it would be "thinly disguised party propaganda" and "vanity publishing." As we have heard, Sir Christopher 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.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

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

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

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.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

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 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:

"Such is the bounty from other donations, they hardly need Ashcroft's money anymore."

It is important to put the record straight on trade union contributions to Labour seats. For example, Mr. Dhanda received £47,500 from trade unions in five years, and 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. Thank you, Mr. Cook. 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.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:53, 3 Mawrth 2010

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 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 had 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.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

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 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, printing and distribution 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 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 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 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.