With the backing of AMs from all four parties in the Assembly, including Peter Black's, I am getting Counsel's Opinion on the guidance on websites published by the Assembly Commission.
I have also sent a long list of questions to the Chief Executive of the Assembly Commission concerning the guidance as published. The guidance is designed to restrain us from carrying 'political' material on our websites/blogs. Some examples are given below. The Guidance is quoted in italics and my questions/comments in bold:
The Office Costs Allowance may be used to pay for setting up and/or maintaining a website only if its purpose is to inform or communicate with constituents about your work as a Member and/or to provide contact details.
How does the Assembly Commission define "work as a Member" and how do you distinguish that from political activity?
You may not use the Office Costs Allowance to pay for individual web pages or parts of websites, where other parts of the site are paid for from other sources.
(a) Why, and (b) What do you mean by "parts of websites"? This seems to misunderstand completely the interactive nature of the web. If I had a "political" website which consisted of three pages and then an "Assembly" website which consisted of a further two pages - both with almost identical design and website addresses and I decided to link from each page to another - but referred to them as separate websites - would that be OK?
The following material is likely to be allowable:
* information about you
In which case, would information about a political life and career be allowed?
* information about the Assembly, debates etc
In which case, is information about party political debates in the Assembly allowed or would this have to be censored to comply with the rest of the guidance? Does this mean that I can reproduce speeches I make or have made in the Asembly as a backbencher or as a Minister, including polemical and party political comment? Is it permissible to reproduce speeches only with party political comment left out?
* news e.g. press releases or articles about your work as an Assembly Member
Again, what do you mean by "work of an Assembly Member"? If I am promoting a scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government as a supporter of that government is that permissible? If I am contrasting a new scheme by the government with the absence of similar provision elsewhere in the UK is that permissible?
* services that allow you to promote your Assembly activities, but not your political activities, digitally. This might include the use of podcasts, weblogs and other related activities
Most people would consider almost all Assembly activities to be political activities. Who decides what is meant by "political"? What part of the job of a politician do you consider not to be political and therefore permissible for promotion on a blog?
You must not use your website
* for fund raising
what about charity fundraising? Assembly Members regularly fund raise for worthwhile charities and collect sponsorship online for marathons, walks etc. - are they not allowed to use their website to do this? Also, what about the Rhondda calendar, something I established as an Assembly Member, which raises money for local Rhondda charities? Is that not allowed to be promoted?
* to publish or promote any publication, unless it meets the rules above
What "rules above" ? it is unclear what they mean by this. But presumably Assembly Members wouldn't be allowed to promote, for example, a government consultation on smoking in public places or a referendum on future powers for the Assembly? Or a book by a local historian or novelist? Or a book, say, written by the Member him or herself concerning the Assembly?
* to advance perspectives or arguments with the intention of promoting the interests of any person, political party or organisation you support, or damaging the interests of any other such person, party or organisation.
This is so vague and could easily be interpreted as "you are not allowed to debate, praise or criticise anything or anyone on your website". Does that mean I would not have been able to urge people to vote for the Sustrans project in the recent lottery vote?
In order to maintain a clear distinction between your website, which is financed from public funds, and any other domain, you must make a clear distinction between your site and any site to which links are provided. You may do this by taking users through a page that confirms they are leaving your website, or by requiring them to acknowledge it through a pop-up form.
I have pointed out that this entirely misunderstands the nature of blogs which link directly to articles
Surveys should relate only to matters of importance locally or for use by the Member locally and not be based on party political campaigns.
Again, what is the agreed definition of "party political campaigns"? Am I allowed to run surveys jointly with my Member of Parliament on local issues?
Petitions should be restricted to those initiated by you and propose specific, non-party political action. For example, it is acceptable for a petition to seeking support for the retention or expansion of local services. But it is not appropriate in the wording of a petition to criticise those who may take an opposite view.
Part of the job of a politician is to scrutinise and, at times, criticise constructively. Also, why should petitions be restricted to those initiated by a member? What is wrong with an AM promoting a petition started by a member of the public (e.g. against school closures) or an organisation in our constituency?
Web technology is developing rapidly, and you may take advantage of these developments by using your website to promote your activities digitally, including the use of podcasts, weblogs etc, provided this meets the principles and rules given above. New forms of online presence are becoming available. These are likely to be acceptable to the extent that they conform to the principles set out in this guidance. In cases of doubt, contact the Members' HR & Allowances Team.
The guidance is prohibiting us from taking advantage of developing web technology.
You should not encourage party political comment or engage in party political debate on line.
Encouraging people to comment is part of the value of weblogs and I would argue is part of the responsibility of a politician.