Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The MPs' Communications Allowance: Trouble Ahead

I was delighted to read last week that David Cameron has promised to scrap the £10,000 a year allowance MPs now receive as a how can I make myself look better Communications Allowance. I think this allowance is going to spell big trouble for MPs who use it, even if they completely obey the rules. There will always be a suspicion that it is being used for subliminal political advertising purposes, even if it isn't. Let's take one example.

Labour MP Chris Bryant and I have crossed swords before, but I want to write this as dispassionately as possible as I think a campaign he is running raises some very interesting issues about the new Communications Allowance. He has written a paper on the future of Broadcasting in Wales, and rather innovatively (for an MP) has created a website (HERE) to explain his arguments. He is also using MessageSpace to virally market a video he has made to publicise the debate he wants to promote. So far so good, and an entirely laudable thing to do. However, the cost of the advertising campaign (which I believe I am benefitting from, although only readers in Wales see the ad on my blog, he tells me) is being met by the House of Commons Fees Office through either the Incidental Expenses Allowance or the Communications Allowance. Let me be clear. I am not accusing Chris Bryant of doing anything wrong. I have spoken to him this morning and talked it over in a very friendly manner. I congratulated him on being innovative but I did ask him if he felt it was right that this sort of thing was funded by the taxpayer. He admitted it raised some very interesting questions but made very clear that he has put it to the House of Commons Fees Office and they have authorised it. Case closed. Sort of.

The interesting point here is that this campaign is not designed to attract voters in his constituency. Why would he need to do that? He has one of the biggest majorities in Wales. But if, for example, a similar campaign were run by his colleague Phil Hope in the marginal seat of Corby, his Conservative opponent Louise Bagshaw could be forgiven for wondering why the taxpayer should be funding something designed - albeit subliminally - to benefit an incumbent.

I don't think even Chris Bryant would pretend that his campaign won't raise his profile both in Wales and more widely. And why not? He's discussing an issue of importance to Wales, but where does it end? He's not being party political in what he says (althought the website design looks very Labour!), but just by existing, the website and video campaign do benefit him, and through him his Party.

My advice to Conservative MPs, for what it is worth, is that they should avoid using the Communications Allowance, and make a positive out of not using it. If one minute David Cameron advocates its abolition, but his MPs then make full use of it, we all know what follows. And if the opposition find that a single Conservative MP voted against it but then takes it up, we'll never hear the end of it. I have to say I wouldn't be too impressed by that, either.

Does anyone else have concrete examples of how the Communications Allowance is being used?
UPDATE: I have just received this clarification from a Tory MP. Very interesting.
I was one of those who voted against the Communications Allowance
because it marked a big increase on the overall level of parliamentary
allowances. It was not accompanied, for example, by any decrease in the IEP. It
is fair for people to debate whether or not MPs should be allowed to fund web
sites and newsletters from allowances at all. But so long as such expenditure is
within the rules, a change in the regulations applied by the House Authorities
that means that probably most MPs will use the Communications Allowance.
Before the Communications Allowance was introduced, MPs could and did fund such
expenditure out of the IEP, but of course that spending had to be balanced
within an MP's IEP budget against all the other costs of running an office. When
the Communications Allowance came in, we were told by the Department of
Finance and Administration that we must from then on allot any spending on web
sites or newsletters to that allowance and not to the IEP. So any MP who
used to pay for communications from the IEP must now pay those sums out of the
Communications Allowance.

So it's actually very difficult to see what extra expenditure is being spent on these publicity projects. Perhaps that's the intention. Perish the thought.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

During the summer recess I recieved a glossy brochure detailing a whistle stop tour around the Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine constituency by Sir Robert Smith (Lib Dem)
Very impressive, looked expensive. Until I took a closer look at the schedule...Using my own local knowledge and the RAC Routeplanner he would spend approximately 14 minutes in my town of Stonehaven (population 10000+ )I complained to his agent that this whole exercise was about spin...What in heavens name could he possibly hope to achieve in 14 minutes. I felt it was a waste of money. God knows how many brochures were printed.

Praguetory said...

To counsel Tory MPs not to use this money is not good advice. This was indeed a unjust Labour bill, but why should we play the game with one arm tied behind our back just to make a point.

Our commitment to abolish it is enough.

Iain Lindley said...

I've not seen the Broadcast Wales advert on your blog, but it is certainly showing repeatedly on LabourHome.

I've written about my local Labour MP's use of the communications allowance on my blog:

http://www.iainlindley.co.uk/2007/09/28/political-propaganda-at-your-expense/

Note the Labour lackey who has appeared (anonymously, of course) in the comments...

Louise Bagshawe said...

Since you raise my seat as an example, Iain, let me give your readers some concrete glimpses as to how Phil Hope MP is using his communications allowance:

http://www.louise4corby.com/video/politics_show_14102007.php

In this video from the Politics Show, you will see leaflets paid for by the Communications Allowance in my lap.

You can't read them, but you'll note that they are red and yellow branded, like Labour leaflets, and they use Labour typeface and typesetting.

They were sent out just before the election that wasn't. Interesting timing.

Unsolicited, they contain a slogan "Phil Hope - A Strong Voice for Corby" and the headline "Phil Hope MP wins Rail for Corby", with the MP taking credit for our train station and a petition organised by the local paper.

Furthermore, this supposedly non-partisan "communications allowance" piece features Phil Hope holding a giant train ticket!

In the next wholly not electioneering "communications allowance", your Labour MP leaps tall buildings in a single bound!

I have supplied copies of this leaflet to the Guardian and am glad I got the chance to show it on television.

The communications allowance is an anti-democratic use of taxpayers' money for promoting incumbent MPs. It's immoral and I hope we scrap it when we are in government.

To think that Mr. Hope complains about target seats funding from private donors! Tory and LibDem challengers are chasing Labour MPs with sandbags tied around their legs.

Anonymous said...

Concreate... you ask.

How about Tory MP Stephan Hammond. Who on the bottom of his own web site has the following note.

"""Stephen Hammond MP is responsible for this site which is funded from the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons""".

Is that concreate enough for you.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Does he appear in these videos in his underpants?

Anonymous said...

How about Tory MP Geofrey Cox, whose website is funded from the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons.

Or

Tory Nicholas Soames whose website is funded from the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons.

Or

Tory Philip Dunne whose website is funded from the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons.

Or

Tory Michael Gove whose website is funded from the Communications Allowance of the House of Commons.

I could go on, but more hilarious the number of Tory MPS who voted against the allowance, have actually taken the cash…OH DEAR !!!!!.

Jonathan Sheppard said...

Louise makes a good point - however annual reports and the like have been published paid for out of an MPs allowance before the Communication allowance was in existence. I would hazard a guess that most MPs on all sides have used the IEP for such activity in the past.

Scary Biscuits said...

lamppostTake a football analogy. The FA abolishes the offside rule. You disagree and then say any of your players caught offside will be sent off by your own captain.

Obviously, nobody in their right mind would do this. Similarly, Conservative MPs shouldn't have to fight to retain their seats using different rules to Labour. Like footballers they have to play within the rules set by the Governing body, in this case the Labour government.

Once in power we can implement a manifesto commitment to make democracy fairer by eliminating this bias in favour of the incumberents. Until then, there is noting hypocritical in Tory MPs using an allowance specifically designed to help the Labour party at the expense of the Tories.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think so Jonathan Sheppard, MPs who use the Incidental Expenses allowance ( IEP ) for comms and websites are required to declare that fact, ie Message stating ““blar blar funded from the Incidental Expenses Provision””. Those using the comms allowance have to declare likewise. Would you like the full list of Tory MPS who voted against the Comms allowance, but actually receive the money. Would You. !!!!. I feel the Grammar School debacle coming again.

Trouble ahead indeed Iain... Probably the first time you have ever been right

Jonathan Sheppard said...

Anonymous you think not what exactly?

My point was that the Incidental expenses allowance was used in the past - which you have confirmed.

Did I say that they did not have to have an imprint specifically stating how it was paid for? No.

My point was that it isnt anything new that money from an MPs office is used for Communications activities.

Anonymous said...

sorry it looks like i have been smoking crack, ignore the post....

Jimbo said...

More Tory MPS who voted against the allowance, then took it:

Anne Main
Charles Walker
Shailesh Vara
Mike Penning
Mark Prichard

Jimbo said...

Correction:

Mike Penning and Mark Prichard were absent at the vote.

But funnily enough so were pretty much all over the Tory so called heavy weights, scared were they, these include

Willy Vague, Willets, Mates Riffy, Lilley, Lansley, Davis, Howard, Gummer, Ancram, Jeremy Hunt. These lot didn’t even vote, many of them front benchers….worried were they

Londoner said...

Iain is wrong to criticise Tory MPs for voting against the communications allowance and then using it (responsibly). To say otherwise is a bit like criticising an MP who votes against a cut in income tax if he doesn't send the money back to HMRC.

If we are really concerned about the cost of MPs, of much more significance is the MPs' final salary DB pension, with very generous accrual rates. In order to reduce the disconnect between MPs and the private sector, and to allow them to approach the issue of other public sector pensions with "clean hands", we should pledge to end DB pensions for MPs and Ministers, replacing them with a generous age-related employer DC/money purchase contribution. In accordance with normal pension law, this would of course only apply to service from the next election onwards. Let's get all existing MPs onside for this and then make the pledge. It could be another "Inheritance Tax moment".

Chris Paul said...

Bryant's ads are obviously being seen by everyone who goes to (most) Message Space blogs. I think I have seen it on yours though I'm not sure.

Many MPs use tax payers money for parliamentary reports and also for systematic campaigning over-corresponding with constituents.

In both 2006 and 2007 Cllr John Leech MP - yes he still has the two jobs - issued parliamentary reports bigging up with lots of whopping pictures his local govt candidates.

The 2007 was spectacularly similar to (other) campaign literature with the same pic of Lib Dem campaign materials on the cover of a candidate's election address.

That was and is disgraceful but it came from existing funds. Paid for by the tax payer.

He voted against the new money. I don't know whether he will take it up and use it. We'll have to wait and see.

But I think there should be a clamp down anyway. Parliamentary reports should have to be issued say in late June or July and all editions should be scrutinised with offenders losing a year or two of money for transgressions.

I'm glad to see some examples of Tories coming through - we don't have any round where I am - as the incumbent money clearly benefits Tories too.

For the record I don't think there is any problem with voting against but taking the budget. I actually agree with Prague Tory on this!

MPs staffer said...

now that the Comms Allowance has come into force, MPs HAVE to use it for their websites and newsletters instead of the IEP. They don't have a choice. Even if they wanted to make a point and continue to use their IEP and leave the £10,000 Comms Allowance untouched, they can't.

HF said...

The first step is that ALL media produced from the allowances must state that as the source of funds.

Stephen Hammond's office said...

Stephen Hammond has been mentioned on this page as an example of an MP funding his website from his communications allowance. As 'MP's staffer' above has pointed out, Stephen - like all other MPs - has no choice but to pay for his website from this allowance, these are the rules. Several times has tried to put things through his IEP allowance only to be told they must come from his communications allowance instead.

Anonymous said...

To say otherwise is a bit like criticising an MP who votes against a cut in income tax if he doesn't send the money back to HMRC

You're onto a good idea there. If Dave gets in and reduces taxes I think all Labour and LibDhimms who oppose it should be challenged to opt out of the tax cut and carry on paying Gordon's rates.

Lady Finchley said...

I for one am glad of the communications allowance - on MP I worked for paid for their very elaborate website and upkeep from the salary allowance which meant that there was less money for staff salaries. And speaking of, I very much resent the fact that staff salaries are included in MPs so called perks. Why doesn't one MP have the cojones to tell the electorate that if they want their problems with tax credits, the CSA, their children's school, OAP travel, lack of hearing aids, complaints against hospitals, not to mention planning issues (which MPs cannot intervene in but which constituents insist on plaguing them with) AND their hundreds of missives just giving their views on anything and everything to which we have to give an intelligent reply then MPs need staff which need to earn a living wage. The reason they don't is because they like constituents to think that THEY do all these things.

Old Hack said...

As Conservatives I think we are in danger of cutting off our noses to spite our faces here.

It is perfectly reasonable for MPs to have websites, run campaigns on behalf of constituents and make themselves accessible to the views of constituents.

What is unacceptable if when the advantage of incumbency is used to an excessive amount. But that is more difficult to define, except to say that you know it when you see it.

It's also noteworthy that Lord Ashcroft has justified his support to target seats citing the advantage Labour incumbents enjoy. Given how Labour are gunning for Lord A at the moment we are in danger of undermining him and the target seats campaign??

Anonymous said...

I know it's an old item, but I'm bitter and it still cheeses me off. Here is a good example. Andrew Pelling has been off work with depression for six months and has announced that the campaign running on Croydon tramlink 'working for you' while he was off sick is now ended.

http://www.andrewpelling.org.uk/record.jsp?type=news&ID=104