Ex-Labour MP told to pay taxpayer £3,835 for breaking rules to sway 2019 election result

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An investigation by Parliament’s Commissioner for Standards found the former Labour Party MP for North West Durham – who lost her seat in the general election – sent thousands of elderly constituents letters detailing changes to rules around TV licences for those aged over 75. But the Commissioner ruled “alterations made by Ms Pidcock to a letter template, provided by the Parliamentary Research Service (PRS), resulted in her mailing becoming party-political in tone and content, and no longer neutral or objective.” Constituents complained about her misuse of taxpayer money brought Parliament into “disrepute” and the letters sent out by Ms Pidcock had “an intent to confer an undue political advantage on herself and the Labour Party”.

The Commissioner has ordered Ms Pidcock to pay back £3,835.32, which she has accepted and also apologised for breaking the rules.

In the summary of the report, the Commissioner wrote: “I investigated an allegation that the Member had broken the rules on the use of House-provided stationery and postage-paid envelopes by sending constituents a mailing which was party-political in tone and content.

“In response to the allegation, the Member said she had used a letter template supplied by the Parliamentary Research Service (PRS), but that she had altered the initial template to include additional content.

“Due to the dissolution of Parliament on 6 November 2019 my investigation was paused until after the results of the General Election. Although Ms Pidcock was not returned as a Member, she continued to cooperate fully when I restarted my inquiry.

“I decided that, although her original intention was to raise awareness around changes to rules for over 75’s TV licenses, in altering the initial template, the letter sent out in September 2019 was no longer written solely in support of the Member’s parliamentary functions.

“As a result, I found Ms Pidcock had acted in breach of the rules on stationery and had breached paragraph 16 of the Code of Conduct for Members.

“The former Member acknowledged and apologised for her inadvertent breach of the rules. She has undertaken to refund the House authorities (£3,835.32) for the misused stationery and postage.

“I consider that to be an appropriate outcome and concluded the inquiry using the rectification procedure available to me under Standing Order no 150.”

A letter from the complainant, a “political campaigner” to the Commissioner, dated September 26, 2019 said they fully understand Ms Pidcock’s desire to campaign on the Government’s handling of TV licencing for over 75s, but says “this campaign activity is not something that should be funded by the taxpayer”.

The complainant referred to the ‘Rules for the use of stationery and postage-paid envelopes provided by the House of Commons, and for the use of the Crowned Portcullis’.

They wrote: “While members are permitted to contact residents unsolicited about a specific issue, they are not permitted to do so “in a way that can be construed as campaign expenditure within the scope of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000”.

“Additionally, the use of party political references is only permitted when a member is responding to a specific issue from a constituent.

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“When a Member is replying to correspondence, party-political references are allowed in House-provided stationery or in correspondence sent in pre-paid envelopes, subject to the restrictions in paragraph above”.

“I believe that by using taxpayer resources in this way, the member for North West Durham not only brings parliament into disrepute, given the public concern at MPs and their expenses since the expenses scandal from 2009, but also according to the rules “confer an undue advantage on a political organisation”.

The complainant also provided examples of where they consider the letter “clearly crosses the line between legitimate correspondence and party political campaigning, with an intent to confer an undue political advantage on herself and the Labour Party”.

The letter said: “This Tory Government has overseen the scrapping of free TV licences for the over-75s, despite their manifesto commitment to maintain free TV licences for over 75’s and has delivered yet another welfare cut to some of the most vulnerable in our society.

“This is a betrayal of older citizens, who deserve dignity in retirement and reward for their hard work.”

But the complainant wrote: “This is very emotive language, and in particular the use of the words, ‘Tory’, ‘betrayal’, references to ‘despite their manifesto commitment’, ‘yet another welfare cut’ and ‘the most vulnerable in our society’ emphasise this as campaign literature, designed to confer an undue political advantage.”

Ms Pidcock lost her North West Durham seat in December’s general election after narrowly losing out to Conservative Party rival Richard Holden by a margin of 41.9 percent (19,990 votes) to 39.5 percent (18,846 votes).

The 32-year-old had held the seat after winning it during the general election in June 2017. She was also Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights under the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

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