Sir George speaks against new Communication Allowance
29 Mar 2007
Sir George attacked the Government for introducing a new allowance worth £6m per annum for MP's

This is the text of his speech

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and I shall refer to some of the points that he made.

I can tell the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) that some of us will have to claim under the communications allowance for activities that we are undertaking at present and which are paid for by the incidental expenses provision. Without wishing to spend any more money, we will have to claim under the communications allowance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there is no implication of hypocrisy.

I join in the chorus of approval welcoming back the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping). At a time of preservation, conservation and recycling, it is marvellous to see him back in the post that he occupied in the 1997-2001 Parliament.

We debate these allowances for ourselves after spending four days debating the Budget, which involved very tough decisions on public expenditure for some important public services, including education and the Home Office. People outside the House will want us to make a very good case for increased public expenditure on our services, given the background of the Budget debate.

When he introduced the debate, the Leader of the House used the argument about disconnect to support the communication allowance. That argument can be stood on its head: we could argue perfectly well that it is our voting for more money for ourselves in this way that adds to, rather than solves, the problem of disconnect. One of the jobs of the House is to examine claims for increased expenditure. We are sent here to see how money extracted from constituents is spent. When we are the conduit for that increased expenditure, we need to be even more vigilant and demand an even higher standard of proof.

The motion before us is the next stage in a debate that began on 1 November, in which a number of those present today took part. When we considered the matter then, it was on a motion from the Leader of the House, and no document had been brought forward. The idea had not been examined by any Select Committee or by the independent outside body charged with determining our allowances. The SSRB is, at this very moment, looking at our salaries and allowances. In a passing reference in the previous debate, the Leader of the House said:

“I have also kept the Senior Salaries Review Body in touch with what is proposed.”—[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 312.]

With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that is precisely the wrong way round: the SSRB ought to be keeping him in touch with what is proposed. What is the purpose of having an independent body to make recommendations about our allowances if—unilaterally, and before its report is published—we help ourselves to higher allowances? When I intervened on him, the Leader of the House said that the proposed
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allowance is a new one. That is true, but a lot of the activity that it subsumes is catered for already.The right hon. Gentleman would have been on much better ground if we had waited for the SSRB’s recommendations and come forward with a much more robust case than the one that he presented this afternoon.

There is another reason why I believe it injudicious to proceed at this moment. As various hon. Members have noted, a fortnight ago Sir Haydn Phillips published his recommendations on party funding, with no agreement having been reached between the parties. There are a number of outstanding issues, one of which is a proposal for a new cap—one that does not exist at present—on what can be spent locally by a political party. That is of particular relevance where that local party is challenging an incumbent, and I quote what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said in our earlier debate:

“Were I a candidate for Parliament running against an incumbent who was using public funds to publish and distribute what looks to most people like campaign literature, I would be mightily upset.”—[ Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451,c. 350.]

At the very moment that the Government are seeking consensus with the Opposition parties on a new limit on what a prospective candidate can spend, they are also proposing to increase what the incumbent can spend without having to raise the money. The Leader of the House must realise that what is being proposed today will make it more difficult to secure the consensus on party funding that I know he wants.

I shall be brief, as I know that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) wants to contribute to the date. On a more positive note, I welcome the decision to cap the value of pre-paid envelopes and other stationery. With an average spend of £3,500, £7,000 leaves a substantial amount of head room for the majority of MPs. I hope that we can stick at that level for some time. I assume that, as the cost of postage rises, the number of free envelopes to which we are entitled will fall.

We are told in paragraph 12 of the motion that detailed rules will follow in a new, separate and comprehensive booklet, and I welcome that. At the moment, the advice is all over the place—in the stationery catalogue, in the Green Book, in leaflets and guidance notes issued by the Serjeant at Arms Department and on that Department’s intranet site. I welcome the prospect of one, comprehensive publication telling us exactly what we can and cannot do.

Bob Spink: Will my right hon. Friend allow me to intervene?

Sir George Young: I hope that my hon. Friend does not mind if I say no, but he has made several interventions and I know that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire wants to speak.

If invited, the Standards and Privileges Committee stands ready to advise—as does the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—on the more detailed guidance to which the motion refers. I notice that we are not included in paragraph 12, but my Committee and the Commissioner have to interpret the rules and so would be more than happy to provide some advice on their composition.

As various hon. Members noted, there has been a steady stream of complaints that rules have been broken in respect of postage and the IEP. We have reported on four cases during this Parliament, and the Commissioner has dealt with many more. The rules lack clarity; they are complex and they overlap. In my Committee’s 10th report, we noted that

“the significant differences of interpretation amongst Members as to the acceptable limits of party-related material that can properly be included in IEP funded material.”

What is proposed today is a considerable relaxation of what can legitimately be funded. I hope that that will be accompanied by a firm restatement of the boundary between parliamentary and party political activity, with an assertion that the new boundary should be rigorously policed. That seems to me to be an appropriate trade-off.

Finally, I recognise that there is always a balance to be struck between the need for prudence with public expenditure—something that has not been mentioned much in the debate—and the imperative of bridging the gap between elected and elector that can undermine Parliament’s legitimacy. My view remains that if we are to have a communication allowance as proposed, a far stronger case for it needs to be made than we have heard so far. As no compelling case has been made to justify an increase of £6 million in public expenditure, I propose to vote against it.

 
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015