Tory 'fictional minister' broke Parliamentary rules

by Stephen Tall on March 18, 2009

As the BBC reports here, Tory MP for Hertford and Stortford Mark Prisk has been publicly rebuked by the Speaker of the House of Commons for for breaking Parliamentary rules in relation to political campaigning.

Parliamentary rules state that MPs are not allowed to use their role as a Member of Parliament to undertake activity in other constituencies, in order to prevent Parliamentary casework being used for party political campaigning. But speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor asserted that Mr Prisk was guilty of using the invented title of ‘Shadow Minister for Conrwall’ to breach this longstanding rule.

Speaking in the Commons, Matthew said:

Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that you and successive Speakers have underlined the fact that MPs who take up local casework and local issues outside their constituencies break a very clear convention by which the House operates, but the Conservative party appears to be trying to get round the convention by appointing so-called shadow Ministers for groups of constituencies that they do not represent, on the basis that that somehow legitimises what they are doing. For example, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, operating as the shadow of the fictional Minister for Cornwall, is as a matter of course taking up local casework. I can supply your office with numerous examples. For instance, this month, while sorting out a local problem for a local arts organisation, I discovered that the shadow of the fictional Minister had also presumed to act on its behalf. In every case, the activity undertaken by him as the shadow of the imaginary Minister for Cornwall mirrors work of local MPs and is clearly done for party political purposes. He is using membership of this place to raise constituency issues as though he were, in effect, a shadow local Member of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman refuses to deny allegations that he claims his travel costs for that party politicking from Commons allowances designed to support genuine shadow ministerial visits and that he uses his parliamentary office to support that party political activity. My question is simple: is that acceptable under the conventions governing us, and if so, should all the parties now feel free to appoint Members of Parliament as shadow Ministers for constituencies, so that they can act on local issues for party political advantage, and go over the heads of the local MP?

To which the Speaker replied:

I do not expect any hon. Member of this House to take up cases other than those in their own constituency. It is wrong. Each individual Member of Parliament jealously guards the fact that their constituency, its boundary and all those within it are there to be looked after by them. I am a constituency MP in my own right, and I would not like it if someone took up cases in my constituency. I am not telling anybody off; I am just saying that everybody in this country has a constituency MP, and they should go to that constituency MP. If someone comes to a Member of Parliament in another constituency, the case should be forwarded to the local MP. That is clear, and it is common sense.

Commenting on the story, Andrew Lewin, spokesperson for Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats said:

Mark Prisk and the Conservative party have shown total disregard both for Parliamentary rules and the people of Hertford and Stortford. It has always been a disgrace that Mr Prisk has been spending so much of his time campaigning for the Conservative party in Cornwall when he should have been attending to the needs of people in Hertford and Stortford. This issue has now been compounded by the declaration that he was in breach of Parliamentary rules.

“The people of Hertford and Stortford deserve far better. Mr Prisk should resign his title of ‘Shadow Minister for Cornwall’ and focus on serving the neglected constituents who actually elected him”.