Earlier this month, I spoke in a debate in the House of Commons. We were discussing whether MP’s should receive an additional allowance – a Communication Allowance – of £10,000. This was to enable us to bridge the democratic gulf that has opened up between elected and elector. I am favour of communicating with my constituents and recognise that I should do more and do it better; but I am against spending a penny more of your hard earned taxes than is necessary. I therefore spoke and voted against this new allowance. (I lost)
Many of you track my activities through my website (www.sirgeorgeyoung.org.uk); others email me on a regular basis; and, through the hospitality of the Andover Advertiser, I am able to communicate with many on a fortnightly basis for nothing (though you have to pay 55p). But I can now reveal, exclusively, how even this important exercise in democratic dialogue can be threatened.
When I was the MP for Ealing Acton, and my majority was smaller than it is now, my column in the Ealing Gazette was a electoral lifeline. When the Conservative Party and I were accused on a regular basis of taking a hatchet to popular public services, the column was a weekly testament to my gentle humanity. However, when I rejoined the Government after a period in exile, I got a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, drawing my attention to Para 105 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers. This important limb of the British Constitution may be unknown to readers, so I reproduce it below.
“Any Minister wishing to practice regular journalism, including the contribution of weekly or fortnightly articles to local newspapers in their constituencies, must have the prior approval of the Prime Minister. In cases of doubt, and in all cases where a Minister is contemplating the contribution of an article going beyond the strict confines of his or her Departmental responsibility, the Prime Minister should be consulted, before work has begun and in any case before any commitment to publish is entered into. In all cases where an article contains material which falls within the Departmental responsibility of another Minister, that Minister must be consulted.”
As Secretary of State for Transport, my constituents had a limited appetite for my views on road pricing, motorway widening, bus deregulation and Terminal 5. My articles had been up till then wide-ranging. But if they were to continue, John Major, who had many other things on his mind at the time, would have had to clear my column in advance. And any comment on any topic other than Transport would have to be cleared or censored by the appropriate Cabinet colleague.
Readers will sympathise with my dilemma. I wanted to maintain the dialogue with my constituents; but I didn’t want to break the Ministerial Code. A telephone call to the Editor of the local paper resolved it. Would he accept and publish a weekly article entitled “Not the Sir George Young column” in the name of my wife, if I gave him a private assurance that I would continue to be its author? He would.
The arrangement was a triumph. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary could sleep again at night, knowing that whatever embarrassment would strike the Government, it would not come from the Ealing Gazette. And I was happy that a sympathetic channel of communication had been kept open.
Until one of my constituents came up to my wife and said “I can’t tell how much the column has improved, since you took it over from George.”