MPs to lose Communications Allowance

Among the Kelly Report’s recommendations for reforming MPs’ expenses and allowances is the abolition of the £10,000 annual Communications Allowance. And quite right too. The report states:

8.20 The Committee believes that effective engagement between an MP and his or her constituents is of the utmost importance, particularly in the wake of recent events. The Committee’s survey research shows that the public expect MPs to keep in touch with what they think is important and to explain their actions and decisions.
8.21 However, with some commendable exceptions, the evidence that the communications allowance has really succeeded in promoting more effective engagement is very limited, even allowing for the relatively short time since its introduction. There is much more evidence of it being used in ways that are essentially party political or have more to do with self-promotion. It is also difficult to police.
8.22 For these reasons, the Committee has concluded that the allowance should be abolished.

It’ll only save between £2m (assuming some of the expenditure finds its way into other allowances) and £5m, a relatively minor sum. But I’m not at all surprised to read:

The Committee has been shown some good examples of the communications allowance being used  to engage with constituents in ways which appear to be both valuable and appropriate. However, the Committee has seen much more evidence of the allowance being used to fund material which is largely self-promotional, containing little information about local issues but a large number of photographs of the MP, or which mainly recites party lines.

I recently received a richly-designed mailing from my own Conservative MP. Lots of colour photos. Official Conservative colours and fonts. It may not have mentioned the word Conservative, but there was no doubt which party it came from. If it’s the last one I receive… actually, let me rephrase that. If it’s the last one I pay for myself, I won’t be sorry.
The lesson here, surely, is that you can’t sensibly separate party politics and Westminster business. I’m glad the Committee recognises this. As I’ve written here before (eg around McBride), the implications of such a conclusion go well beyond the few million quid we’ll all save.
PS: The Committee also appears to have added a new definition of greater London, based on a ‘reasonable commuting distance’. It calls for the new independent regulator to draw up a list of constituencies to add to those which meet the current rule: ‘constituencies wholly within 20 miles of Westminster’. The BBC specifically names Reigate, Slough, Runnymede and Weighbridge, St Albans, Welwyn and Hatfield, Epping Forest, Sevenoaks, Maidenhead, Broxbourne, Mole Valley, Windsor and Dartford.

Let freedom of information ring

It would appear that the plan to exempt MPs and Lords from Freedom Of Information provisions has been ditched. The Mail’s Benedict Brogan is trying to unpick what just happened:

Gordon Brown claims that Tories have pulled out of a cross-party deal to introduce the change. The suggestion from No10 is that up until yesterday the Tory and Labour Chief Whips were agreed that the Tories would vote with Labour in favour of the scheme. In effect the accusation is that David Cameron took fright when he realised what that would mean for his stand on transparency. The Tories are expressing mystification, suggesting that there was no deal. So either it’s embarrassment for Dave because Brown has revealed that the Tories were ready to back the exemption. Or it embarrassment for the PM because the Tories have forced him to back down.

Arguably, it doesn’t matter. A bad thing has been averted, and we – the citizens of the Internet – should take some credit, and pride in that. ‘Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way.‘ Not Obama’s inauguration address, as I initially assumed; that’s from Tom Steinberg’s blog post on the subject. 🙂
But it’s been a depressing couple of days, watching this come to a head. The potential implications, if such stories are true, aren’t pleasant to contemplate, if (like me) you believe it’s inherently a good thing for the country to know what its leaders are doing, and why. The two parties conspiring, behind the scenes, to get the measure through, undermining any claims they’ve ever made about transparency – and, while we’re at it, any claims of affinity to the Obama message:

As president, Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent and by giving regular Americans unprecedented new tools to keep track of government officials, who they are meeting with, who is giving them money and how they are spending taxpayer dollars.

It would have been sheer hypocrisy. As a small business owner, I have to be able to present receipts for every sum I try to claim back from the public purse (in the form of the Tax Man) as expenses incurred in the course of my work. I’m not allowed to deliver a top-level summary under either 9 or 26 headings. And quite simply then, MPs should have to do likewise – and be seen to do so.
And let’s give due credit to the Liberal Democrats here. It was Jo Swinson who tabled the (relatively poorly supported) EDM on Monday; and Nick Clegg had imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to oppose the move. Their credentials are reinforced today.
UPDATE: The story is evolving. ‘Tory HQ are desperate to claim that there was no deal or collusion between their backbenchers and Labour over the issue,’ says Sam Coates at The Times.  ‘The decision, apparently made in the 45 minutes between the mid-morning lobby briefing and the beginning of PMQs, looks shambolic at best – but the Conservatives’ ire has been fuelled by what was said (and left unsaid) at PMQs,’ says Niall Paterson at Sky News.