Monday, 25 May 2009

Are You Listening, Mr Wilson?

Out of the murk of the expenses scandals the question of political dialogue has raised it's head again.

Cllr Swaine draws our attention to the use of MPs 'communications allowance' - a sum of over £10,000 per year - and argues that there is a wide gulf between fair communication and propaganda.

Adrian Windisch recently cited a Hansard Society report into the extent MPs use technology to communicate with constituents and was shocked to discover that in some cases they respond to as few as two emails per week!

The Hansard investigation concluded that MPs are 'transmitting but not receiving', fearful of the often confrontational nature of the blogosphere and the potential to get sucked into a losing debate online which provides a permanent account of their views.

Report author Andy Williamson, Director of the eDemocracy programme at the Hansard Society said, "They use the internet as a tool for campaigning and for organising their supporters, rather than opening up two-way communication with constituents."

Which will probably explain Conservative Reading East MP Rob Wilson's decision to ensure readership of his blog is by invitation only.

Following Conservative leader David Cameron's strong opposition to use of the communications allowance Mr Wilson has since decided that his online presence does not amount to open communication with constituents and it is unfair to continue to claim the sum for his activities.

Whether Mr Wilson intends to repay sums he has already claimed is not known.

Oranjepan asks:
If they don't engage in dialogue how can we be reassured that our representatives aren't just pretending to listen?


  1. Excellent post. I didn't know any of that.

    I just nominated my husband for MP in Dave Cameron's new open-to-anyone system.

  2. Make him pay it all back!

  3. Oh dear, yet more pathetic diatribes from the Lib Dems.

    The 'blog' you refer to was taken offline in January when Rob's new website went live. The articles on the blog were his fortnightly Chronicle column 'Westminster Diary'. These are now published on his website in the Articles section.

    Attemps at opening up dialogue with constituents by way of a forum on his site showed little appetite for online discourse from constituents. The forum was online for several months and wasn't used.

    Constituents apparently prefer emailing their MP directly or meeting him in person at one of his weekly surgeries.

    Something which Gareth Epps will never be able to experience.

  4. Thanks for the comment Alex, I welcome your response, unfortunately I think what you say doesn't stack up.

    Mr Wilson's blog was online in early March when I commented on it questioning the accuracy of a statement. I was anticipating an effort at clarification and was prepared to cross-promote the location as a place where debate can be had, but the reaction of the Conservative party was to prevent further potentially critical comments.

    My conclusion was that my point was valid and they had been caught in a mistake; they weren't prepared to admit this mistake and tried instead to exert control in order to limit negative perceptions. The implication is that they are afraid of the public because they are not fully committed to spreading democratic engagement.

    BTW if the blog no longer exists would it still be available to invited readers?

    I feel you'd have more success if you accepted the open goal facing you - Martin Salter's online presence is even more restrictive and by all reports he still intends to continue claiming the comms allowance...

    What do you think are the acceptable purposes for which we should offer tax-payer funded support: democratic dialogue, or diktat?

  5. i was under the impression that blogger was free!

  6. No wonder politics is in the mess it is in when we get such craven toadying from the party apparatchniks.

    We now have an interesting definition of the word "diatribe" from the local Tories. Apparently it now encompasses any criticism of Tory MPs or asking them to account for their spending of public money on what has been little more than party propaganda.

    £10,000 is a lot more than the cost of a duck house. I think we have a right to know what it was spent on and when, especially with the local Tories effectively admitting that they should have been paying for the web site all along. It is also not unreasonable to ask in the current round of hairy shirt wearing how much Rob is going to pay back to the taxpayer.

    And it is a fair point from Oranjepan. What did Martin Salter spend his £9,300 on? It certainly wasn't for web design.

  7. Surly this is an infrastructure issue, why are MP's scrambling around trying to create and manage their own WEB sites, email accounts and blogs etc. then claiming on expenses, that will simply create an incompatible mess.

    IMO HM Gov. needs to own the infrastructure to provide all these services to MP's much like a modern ISP does with the public; what I want from my representatives are content and access, not 646 separate and expensive voyage's of discovery with new technology.

    If such services were centralised then at least we could see who is doing what and with whom.

  8. Alex M - M for miaow.

  9. Just to point out for some balance, the Lib Dems haven't been claiming any exepenses inappropriatley. Also pigs can fly.

    Rob Wilson and Martin Salter have been named by the Telegraph as good MPs.

    On the same line, when will all the Lib's pay back there communications allowance, the answer tomorrow. Once again pigs can and will fly.

  10. Thanks for the comments, anonymous.

    I have to say I like balance, but the point being discussed is consistency.

    Whether the comms allowance or others is justifiable is a political point and whether any particular claims made are legitimate and appropriate can only be judged on a case by case basis, if we accept the principle that there are certain costs which should be reimbursed.

    When proposing reforms it helps if you are credible - if the Tories wish to abolish the comms allowance and are saying it is unacceptable to make claims under it now then they need to explain why it became unacceptable overnight or they need to repay those sums they received previously.

    If they can't do either of these things then they open up questions about their motives.

    My personal opinion is that the comms allowance may be justifiable, but that depends on being able to demonstrate the value for money provided in the service and this should be factored in to any calculations.

    So, what does 'communication' mean: one-way preaching or two-way dialogue?


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