In their manifesto launched yesterday, Labour claimed (section 9:2):
"We acted swiftly to clean up politics…And we will take further measures to restore trust in our politics. We face a deep crisis of trust in politics following the parliamentary expenses scandal. Faith in our political institutions was seriously eroded by the abuses of the expenses system. Only radical change can begin to renew our democracy."
The tragedy is that even before the print was dry on this section of Labour’s manifesto, at least two Labour government ministers had been caught ‘red handed’ (mis)using parliamentary expenses for party political campaigning.
Transport minister, Sadiq Khan is reported to have sent out thousands of unsolicited letters to voters in his marginal Tooting constituency in South London just days before parliament was dissolved for the general election. The letters on House of Commons stationary and sent using parliamentary prepaid envelopes detail his achievements as their MP and told voters how to contact him during the general election. The House of Commons rule book ‘The Communications Allowance and the use of House Stationary’ repeatedly states that such parliamentary stationary:
"should not in any circumstances be used...for the benefit of a political party or supporting the return of any person to public office."
However, Mr Khan has previous form for misusing expenses having earlier this year had to apologise and repay £2,500 for breaking these very same rules.
Meanwhile, I can reveal that Labour government whip and Deputy Minister for the East of England Bob Blizzard, who is MP for Waveney in Suffolk, is similarly currently under investigation by the parliamentary authorities relating to his use of MPs’ £10,000 per year Parliamentary Communications Allowance. For two years following the introduction of the Communications Allowance in 2007 Mr Blizzard repeatedly used these tax payer funded parliamentary expenses for party political campaigning and attacks on political opponents. These included repeated party political campaigns against Conservative controlled Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council and even included encouraging constituents to vote against them in local elections.
(picture above one of many pages attacking local Conservative controlled councils, picture below encouraging voters how to vote in June 2009 Suffolk County Council elections, on Bob Blizzard MP's two websites both of which state that they are funded from his MP's Parliamentary Communications Allowance)
The House of Commons rules governing the use of MPs’ Communications Allowance very explicitly forbid its use for any form of party political campaigning or attacks on political opponents. This is in fact the main theme of these rules, and is explicitly repeated no less than 32 times in the 38 page rule book produced by the parliamentary authorities. Moreover, Mr Blizzard was himself present in the Commons when these rules governing MPs use of the Parliamentary Communications Allowance were debated in 2007 and so cannot reasonably claim to be ignorant of them. However, like his fellow Labour Minister Sadiq Khan, Mr Blizzard also has previous form having recently been ordered by the Legg Enquiry to repay nearly £4,000 of over claimed second homes allowances.
The present Labour government is at least partly responsible for creating the culture that led to these two ministers (mis)using parliamentary expenses for party political campaigning. This is because it was this government that in 2007 brought in a £10,000 per year MPs’ Communications Allowance which many Labour MPs were reported as talking about as a ‘save our seats’ fund. This was despite a commitment in Labour’s 2005 manifesto that:
“campaigning activity must always be funded by parties from their own resources” (p.111).
The actual rules governing the use of the Communications Allowance do in fact forbid its use for party political campaigning. However, by introducing it the government helped to create a culture of MPs using taxpayer funded parliamentary expenses to promote themselves. To this extent at least the present Labour government must take responsibility for the diversion of parliamentary expenses for party political campaigning that these two of their own ministers have now been caught 'red handed' doing.
This particular form of parliamentary expenses abuse is potentially one of the most serious yet. For government ministers such as Sadiq Khan and Bob Blizzard to divert tax payers’ money for their own party political and re-election campaigns is the sort of thing that happens in corrupt third world countries – it should be as far removed from British democracy as it is possible to be.