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
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.