Freesteel Blog » MP’s Communications Budget

MP’s Communications Budget

Saturday, December 15th, 2007 at 10:34 pm Written by:

I’ve been feeling a bit low today, not well enough to focus on my desperately behind machining work, especially after a walk down into town (Tuebingen) with a bad cold. So I’ve cheered myself up (it’s funny what one does to wind down) by editing the Freedom of Information Bill (2000) Publicwhip policy using my newly devised formulation for describing everything in terms of the “Majority”, which has a meaning, rather than in terms of “Aye” and “No”, which are generally arbitrary and misleading (it depends, for example, on whether the motion was: “That the original words shall stand”, or: “That the amendment be made”).

The Parliamentary debates about the FOI Act in 2000 bear little relation to the issues which I have encountered with the Act, which are to do with cover-ups for anything that is “commercially confidential”, which seems to apply to privatizations that are funded 100% by taxpayer money (for example, contracts for buying software and computers for schools). During a lot of the debate MPs were worried about the exemptions for information that would prejudice the conduct of public affairs, which would allow the Government to say “if we told you that, then it would make it much harder to get free and frank information from experts in the future.”

Anyways, here is the panel of comparisons between the MPs and the pro-FOI policy. The Tories come out a lot better than Labour, because they kept voting for tiny issues which would have strengthened the Act, and Labour always (with those few shining exceptions which you can now see) rejected them. The Tories never had time for such legislation when they were in power. Had there been some votes on the less controversial issues, such as whether there should be Freedom of Information at all, they’d all be brighter, because it was bipartisan, popular, and long overdue.

That’s enough waffle about that. What got me started on this road yesterday was the discovery of the Communications Allowance which was first voted for in Parliament on 1 November 2006, and finally passed, following the report by the committee, on 28 March 2007, just days before it came into force on 1 April.

The new rule caps their pre-paid envelope allowance to £7,000 per year, but gives them a new Communications Allowance of £10,000 per year. This is in addition to their Travel Allowance, Staffing Allowance, Staff Travel Allowance, Centrally Purchased Stationery, Centrally Provided Computer Equipment, London Supplement, Additional Costs Allowance, and Incidental Expenses Provision.

The new Communications Allowance alone can reach up to £6.56million in real money per year.

I have helpfully included most of the guidelines into the motion text regarding that division. Go read it. While looking around, I managed to find a report by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges (15 November 2007) titled Conduct of Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Adam Price and Mr Hywel Williams. Oh dear. It seems they were caught placing advertisements…

“in newspapers circulating in their constituencies in the week preceding the recent Welsh Assembly general election. Those placed by Mr Llwyd and Mr Williams appeared in the Daily Post, a daily paid-for paper circulating in North Wales, on 26 and 25 April respectively. Those placed by Mr Price appeared in the issues of the same week of three weekly paid-for newspapers circulating in various parts of his own constituency but also outside it—the South Wales Guardian, the Llanelli Star and the Carmarthen Journal. In each case, the advertisements consisted of two full-page spreads, with English language and Welsh language versions of the same advertisement on facing pages. They are reproduced here. All the advertisements were paid for out of the House of Commons Communications Allowance.

Also, their use of their party logo was not “proportionate and discreet”. Consequently, they were told to pay their claim for expenses back.

During the debate over the allowance, Jack Straw said:

Websites that are funded from the communications allowance should be used only for parliamentary purposes. To ensure that there is much better control, we have decided to make the rules clear and to say that it will not be acceptable for Members to allow publicly funded web pages to be contained in another domain or website, and vice versa. Members will have a parliamentary website, and they may have separate websites if they wish to fund them from other sources. Parliamentary websites will close down when Parliament is dissolved after a general election is called.

A website must comply with the same rules on the content of material as any other publication, and it must contain on the home page a statement that it is funded from parliamentary allowances. Any links to other sites must make it clear electronically that the reader is leaving the parliamentary-funded website. However, websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated and it is important that the MEC (Member’s Estimate Committee) should have asked the DFA (Department of Finance and Administration) to monitor website content so that the MEC can be assured that the allowances are being used for the stated purposes.

I’m not sure how this relates to the issue that with websites the more different ones there are, the less they get seen — as opposed to to hard copy documents, where the more there are, the more you can see them piling up.

But let me cut this short. £6.5million is a lot of money to be giving to MPs when they have no clear idea what to spend it on. How about an MP putting some of it towards improving the content on Publicwhip?

The software is fine and ticking over with work I do now and then, and the cost of the server, which gets used for a lot of other work, is covered with about £1000 a year. What we really need is help with the Motion Text Editing. In other words, all that work I just did for the Freedom of Information Bill 2000 turning gibberish like this into something more legible like this, which takes a great deal of time, research, skill and knowledge.

Why can’t some MPs get together and pay someone to do this work part-time in order to turn these Parliamentary motions into something that makes sense? I don’t want to see the money. They merely have to spend it on a staff assistant or two who can call me down to London to help train them how to research and edit HTML.

Then this data can feed through to all sorts of other places, like their Parliamentary webpages and so forth. It all helps to promote the understanding of Parliament, which is about the votes in the division lobbies that ultimately sets the political course of this country, but which the public is generally pretty ignorant about.

Some MPs definitely want to keep it this way (for example, the whips). But some others may not (for example, those who vote in accordance with overwhelming public opinion, and not always the way the whips tell them to).

Come on, folks. There are only 200-300 Parliamentary votes per year, rarely more than ten per week (usually much less). To edit a motion takes between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on the complexity. That’s less than three hours of work per week. Extra billable and accountable (we can exhibit the diffs) cash in hand for your staff, and you won’t get into trouble. How about it? Please contact team@publicwhip.org.uk for more information.

1 Comment

  • 1. buildhome » MP’s &hellip replies at 17th December 2007, 12:51 am :

    […] Wed 31 Dec 1969 MP’s Communications Budget Posted by garry under Uncategorized  Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on […]

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