Salter Speaks ‘It is time I fessed up hon.’ Communication Allowance

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
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.
Martin Linton (Battersea, Labour)
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
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.
Greg Hands (Shadow Minister, Treasury; Hammersmith & Fulham, Conservative)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
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.
Link to this Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 3 March 2010, c298WH)
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Greg Hands (Shadow Minister, Treasury; Hammersmith & Fulham, Conservative)
rose-
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
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.
Greg Hands (Shadow Minister, Treasury; Hammersmith & Fulham, Conservative)
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.
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
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.
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Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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