MPs for Hire:Whom does your MP Serve?
- 'We can all think of examples of colleagues who over the years have always espoused a particular cause for which they have been paid, and the fact is that what they have been saying has been rather marked down, if you like, because of that.'
- Peter Fry, Conservative MP for Wellingborough and political lobbyist
- 'The public do not have an automatic right to know what Members of Parliament get up to. '
- Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson, Conservative MP for New Forest
Westminster's lobby land
In the heart of Westminster's lobby land, just 600 yards from the House of Commons, are the offices of one of Britain's most flourishing management consultancies. Based at 35 Old Queen Street, Saxton Bampfylde International PLC specialise in securing highly paid executive positions and directorships. Some of their most enthusiastic clients are companies looking for Members of Parliament.
Saxton Bampfylde is just one of several headhunters advising firms looking for political 'ambassadors'. As the average annual fee is £15,000 plus perks, the demand within Westminster for such jobs is high. Some even ask for a variety of clientele. 'A chap might have five such directorships,' said Stephen Bampfylde, the managing director, 'each offering something different, so he could put together a package.' They represent companies, not MPs, and yet nothing encapsulates the notion of 'MPs -for hire' more than this form of political importuning. What kind of service do MPs provide in return for their retainer?
The scope of influence and level of activity generated by MPs varies. At the bare minimum, director/MPs attend a monthly board meeting and possibly a company committee. Back-bencher/consultants prefer reporting informally on an ad hoc basis and are available on call. They also write strategic briefing documents for clients.
Bampfylde sees an MP on the board almost like a well-polished ornament. 'Good non-executive directors are a bit like the constitutional monarchy,' he said. 'Their role is to guide, warn, advise and occasionally say no - to blow the whistle.' However, other executive search consultants argue that MPs exert more power. 'There is no doubt that having an MP on the board enormously enhances a company' s access to ministers who might affect their business,' said Ian Ashworth. 'The amount of political lobbying done by companies is now huge. And that is the primary reason for putting an MP on your board.'
As the lobbying activities of hired MPs are conducted in great secrecy, it is difficult to assess the extent of their influence. But Lord Rees-Mogg, on the board of GEC, M & G and J. Rothschild Holdings, has provided an insight into the functions of the non-executive director. According to Rees-Mogg, the 'part-time' director is a far from semi-detached observer:
The outside [non-executive] director shares all the legal responsibilities of the board as a whole. All directors have a collective duty to use their best efforts to run the business successfully and profitably... It is essential that part-time directors should have the same psychological commitment to the success of the business as the full-time directors.
As nearly all MPs on company boards are non-executive directors (NED), Rees-Mogg's analysis is extremely apt. He argues that NEDs are primarily watchdogs for the shareholder and come into their own during take-over battles. 'In a bid the outside directors should be an additional resource for management,' said Rees-Mogg, who outlined their role:
- At the crisis of a company's life, when events are being decided which will settle its future for ever, outside directors ought to be willing to drop everything if they are needed . An outside director ought to have a sufficiently flexible life to be able to concentrate all his energy and atten-tion on the business which needs it most. In the crisis of a business, many plans have to be made and remade under pressure. In that process, the outside director, partly because he does come from the outside, can play a helpful part.
As a contentious take-over bid is often politically controversial and involves government adjudication, an MP sitting on the board is placed in an invidious position. Faced with his responsibilities as a director, conflicts of interest are almost inevitable. But there is a more fundamental point to be made about MPs on the payroll. There is no doubt, as Ian Ashworth and other headhunters testify, that most back-benchers are recruited by companies purely because of their status in Parliament. As The Economist noted:
- Notoriously, men are often placed upon boards of directors simply and solely because they are Members of Parliament and are, therefore, believed to be able to exercise a useful influence. It would be well if the constituencies would take the matter up and let their Members understand that they do not confer the honour of membership of Parliament merely in order to raise a man's value in the guinea-pig market.
This was published in 1896, but its message is just as pertinent today, for MPs are selling themselves in the market-place as never before.
Many voters are unaware that MPs spend much of their time helping companies in return for undisclosed payments. Some, understandably, do not even know the Register of Members' Interests exists. William Miller, a Conservative voter from Shrewsbury, was so shocked by the news that he wrote to the Sunday Telegraph:
- I had thought an MP represented only his constituents. I consider it improper in the extreme that, having reached Parliament on their votes, he should spend his time there lining his pocket by serving interests of which they may know nothing and which may even be contrary to their own. Far from being accepted as a matter of course, this practice should be regarded as a public scandal.
The secrecy surrounding MPs' paid interests is recognised by objective observers. 'It is not something which is very widely ventilated or publicised,' said Graham Zellick, Professor of Public Law at London University. 'I think the public would be nothing less than appalled if they knew the extent to which their Members of Parliament were in the pockets of those able to buy them.' MPs counter-argue that they can act for their constituents as well as retain their business interests. They also maintain that it is highly unlikely that the two will ever directly clash. But this is not always the case.
In 1990, the normally placid citizens of Hove, Sussex, were loudly campaigning against a plan by the supermarket chain Sainsbury to build a new store and leisure centre in their town. They were con-cerned about the damage to the environment, as the store, occupying 79,000 square feet, was to be built in the Benfield Valley, Hove's last green valley. The complaints grew more vociferous when a govern-ment inspector rejected the Conservative-controlled council's objection to the store. The angry Hove people refused to give up, forming action groups and enlisting the help of their constituency MP to lobby the government on their behalf.
It was at this point that the danger of MPs retaining commercial concerns was clearly demonstrated. The MP in question was the Hon. Timothy Sainsbury, the parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office. His shareholding in the family company of J. Sainsbury Plc is worth an estimated £120 million, and he had been a director from 1962 until 1983, when he joined the government.
This was a clear conflict of interests, and was recognised as such. Sainsbury refused to get involved in the controversy. He would only say: 'I ceased having executive involvement with J. Sainsbury PLC fourteen years ago and have not had non-executive involvement for six years.' Many of his constituents were unhappy with the situation. 'We were disenfranchised,' Jack Arscott, a local campaigner told me. 'He has let down the people he is there to represent,' said Bob Bailey, a local Liberal Democrat councillor. 'He must now decide whether his primary duty is to his constituents or his family superstore.' The local paper concurred: 'The only hope is an appeal to local MP Tim Sainsbury to put his constituents before family interest. It's a vain hope, given that previous cries for help have fallen on deaf ears.'
Justifying the system
MPs defend their being paid by outside interests on two grounds. The first is that they need to supplement their income. This is an unconvincing argument. An MP's basic annual salary is currently £28,970 more than twice the national average wage and far more than most of their constituents receive. In addition, they receive £25,000 a year for running their office and £10,000 for living expenses if the constituency is outside London. MPs are also entitled to free travel between their homes and Parliament.
It is true that this compares unfavourably with the situation in other democracies, notably the United States. But it is hardly poverty wages. More significantly, some 230 MPs manage perfectly adequately without resorting to consultancy and directors' fees. If those back-benchers are satisfied with £28,970 plus allowances, the low-pay argument loses credibility. However, there is a strong case for increasing a back-bencher's secretarial and research allowances and improving office facilities.
It is also highly unlikely that a substantial salary increase would solve the problem. Most MPs with commercial interests are raking in an extra £40,000 minimum. Some, particularly former Cabinet ministers, are receiving £75,000-plus. Even if an MP's wages were doubled, it is unlikely the pursuit of the golden calf would stop.
The second line of defence is that it is of great benefit to the country to have MPs with outside interests. The conventional wisdom is that Parliament would be a sterile place if populated by Members with no experience of the real world. 'The job of a back-bencher is not intended to be a full-time one,' said Dudley Fishburn, Conservative MP for Kensington. 'A back-bencher is best who brings the outside bustle and business of the world with him to the House of Commons.'
There is, of course, nothing wrong with MPs having outside interests. But politicians do not need to be on the board of several companies to have experience of the real world. And it does not explain why they need to be paid jobs, when many of their colleagues lobby for their constituents, pressure groups and the public for free.
More fundamentally, there is a strong argument for the back-bencher representing all interests on an equal and full-time basis. Apart from the ethical factor, there has been a massive rise in both the complexity and quantity of legislation passing through the Commons. To examine and peruse these laws is a full-time job. According to Douglas Smith, a Westminster lobbyist and Tory councillor for over twenty years:
- Politicians in this day and age would be better off being full-time poli-ticians. The public interest would be better protected if they spent their time totally on looking at political affairs, because government is now so complex. A hundred years ago you could be a land-owner as well as a politician because there wasn't as much government. But now there's the European Community as well as increased government here, so I think it's a full-time professional job.
Reforming the system
To persuade MPs to work full-time for the public is a difficult enough job. But the task is impeded by the very rules that are supposed to protect and preserve the public interest.
In the Commons chamber an MP is obliged to declare an interest only when making a speech during a debate or committee proceeding. These declarations are often couched in the most nebulous terms: 'I have an interest in the banking industry.' The type of interest and name of the company are not always specified. The complacency surrounding the implementation of this resolution was noted by the Registrar of Members' Interests, James Hastings. On 19 January 1988, he wrote to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, a Conservative MP and Scottish Office Minister: 'I suspect that its terms are not always as fully recalled by Members as they might be and are probably not always observed.'
There are several escape-routes for the commercially active backbencher, looking for a secret way to lobby for clients without breaking the rules. Here are the occasions when an MP does not have to disclose his consultancy, directorship or shareholding:
when asking oral questions; when submitting written questions; when making 'brief' interventions during debates; when sponsoring Commons motions.
Despite these discrepancies, it seems Parliament's only real concern is that a pecuniary interest should be declared - not the conflict that it can create between private and public duties. This serves to legitimise and provide a seal of approval for MPs who continue to lobby for outside bodies in exchange for payment.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Register of Members' Interests is inadequate in both its structure and its application. An ordinary constituent inspecting the Register at the local library or House of Commons will find it a baffling document. Declarations are vague and incomplete and the voter will see only a blurred vision of their MP's interests. Here are some items missing from the Register:
description of the type of declared company; amount of money received by the Member; shareholdings of less than 1 per cent; value and size of the declared shareholdings; clients of consultancy/PR and lobbying companies; nature of services provided by MP to the client; length of stay and purpose of overseas trips; fees received from companies for services not directly related to parliamentary duties; date of appointment and departure from company.
The Register also does nothing to prevent an MP speaking, asking questions, lobbying, sponsoring motions and voting for private interests in return for payment. Indeed, the regulations effectively sanction such activity.
Whenever the Select Committee on Members' Interests has examined the issue, the loopholes have been neatly overlooked. Their 1985 inquiry concluded: 'There is no requirement to disclose amounts [of money]. The original decision to limit registration generally in this way was come to by the House after a careful balance of advantage between public disclosure and the right to privacy ... Identifying interests is more important than quantifying them.' Instead the committee concentrated on relatively inconsequential malpractices such as lobbyists masquerading as MPs' research assistants and moonlighting lobby journalists.
The 'privacy' argument is a smoke-screen. According to Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, MPs are supposed to be publicly accountable: When a person joins this House he is involved in the business of public affairs and must therefore relinquish some of that privacy... Privacy often leads to secrecy, and secrecy is the blanket behind which corruption can take place. I therefore believe that there is a need to declare all sources [of cash] over and above parliamentary salaries... There is only one loyalty that Members of this House have, and that loyalty is derived from the vote cast in the ballot box.
Conservative MP James Cran agreed, although for a different reason:
- I'm very much in favour of extending the rules and asking those MPs who receive money from consultancies to tell us how much they're getting. The advantage that would have is to let us know those MPs who aren't paid at all. We might therefore listen to them rather mote than we do to those who are paid.
The refusal to grant the public information concerning how much their MP is paid by outside organisations hides important information about the nature of the declared interest. As the Observer commented: 'There is a world of difference between a £1,000 retainer paid to an MP by a commercial company for occasional guidance and a £20,000 "sweetener" offered, perhaps, for a much more spe-cific purpose.'
In recent years radical attempts to reform the system have been quashed. In November 1987, Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, briefly refused to sign the Register in protest at its partial and inadequate nature'. During his membership of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, he suggested five changes to the Register. They included more detailed information about remuneration received by MPs, declaration of clients of lobbying firms and the listing of all shareholdings.
In March 1988 the select committee rejected Allen's proposals. That month another radical blueprint was considered. Drafted by Labour MPs Dale Campbell-Savours and Tom Pendry, this plan advocated that the assets of MPs' wives should be declared, the threshold of 1 per cent on shares be lowered or all shareholdings in public companies worth over £100,000 be registered, and capital gains on a particular share exceeding £25,000 be recorded. These reforms were also rejected, although only on the casting vote of the chairman, Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith. The committee responded by diverting attention away from Members' interests and launching another inquiry into the activities of lobbying companies.
One argument used to discourage further disclosure is that Members are already aware of those who transgress. One of them sent an anonymous note to the Observer's political editor Adam Raphael saying: 'Those MPs who are bought are discounted by the rest of us. Yours sincerely, A Tory.' This ignores the fact that voters would remain ignorant of their MP's interests without disclosure.
By far the major flaw with the Register is that it is voluntary, based on custom and courtesy rather than rule and resolution. It is not legally binding, and only suspension or expulsion from the House of Commons can make it effective.
One attempt to make the Register compulsory was roundly defeated by MPs. In 1985 Dale Campbell-Savours proposed that a newly-elected Member be required to make a declaration in the Register before being allowed to take his seat in the House. John Biffen, then leader of the Commons, opposed the motion. He argued that it would create 'the most formidable problems of definition'. Some thirty Conservative MPs disagreed and voted for a mandatory Register, but they were defeated by 174 to 128, a majority of 46.
The Register's lack of credibility was starkly illustrated by the absence of any action taken against Enoch Powell. Between 1975 and 1987 Powell steadfastly refused to comply with the requirement to declare his interests in the Register. The Ulster MP admitted he was in 'clear contempt' of the House but believed that the resolution was 'unconstitutional'. The Select Committee on Members' Interests repeatedly recommended that disciplinary action be taken against Powell. But the Commons refused to enforce its own rules.
Powell's argument was that it required an act of Parliament, not a resolution of the House, to impose such conditions. 'The qualifica-tions to be an MP, or disqualifications to be an MP, are a matter of law and can only be increased or altered by altering the law,' he said. 'No resolution of either House by itself can do that to the law.'
No more inquiries, please
Powell was right - but for a different reason from the one he gave. It can be argued that many of the cases involving MPs helping companies in return for payment verge on the criminal. To expect a voluntary, restricted Register and a self-regulating Select Committee on Members' Interests to police the system is naive and short-sighted.
As the select committee is not a judicial body, it is severely handicapped, regardless of the quality of its members. The committee of thirteen busy MPs meets only fortnightly, or weekly when reports are in preparation. It has no research or investigative staff, apart from an over-worked Registrar, and no expert advisers from the business, political or legal world. Its shortcomings are exposed during special inquiries into breaches of the rules. A thorough and independent investigation into complex and sensitive allegations is difficult enough for a court of law. Hundreds of documents need to be sought and scrutinised and witnesses cross-examined. For a part-time select committee, meeting sporadically with meagre resources, it is even more formidable.
The committee's credibility also suffers because it is not independent. The members are all MPs with an in-built majority for the government of the day. Some of them even have commercial interests themselves (see chapter 5). Hence MPs are investigating other MPs, policing themselves often in secret session. They are judges in their own cause.
For the ordinary voter, following the select committee's complaints procedure can be a frustrating experience. There is no doubt at all that its rules serve to discourage inquiries against MPs. The commit-tee will launch an investigation only after a complaint by a member of the public or an MP. There is also a requirement that there must be 'prima-facie evidence as to the accuracy of the allegation' before the procedure can be invoked. Naturally, an ordinary constituent is unlikely to possess such evidence. Consequently, inquiries in recent years have all been the result of media disclosures John Browne (World In Action), Michael Grylls (Andrew Roth's Parliamentary Profiles) and Michael Mates (Independent on Sunday).
A case in point was that of John Browne, the Conservative MP for Winchester. For over two years Browne's activities were under the journalistic periscope because of his controversial divorce pro-ceedings. He had been awarded a £270,000 cash settlement against his ex-wife Elizabeth and when she fell short by £49,000 the MP was prepared to see her jailed. This resulted in highly critical press comment of Browne's conduct during the case.
In December 1986, Elizabeth Browne gave the author access to hundreds of documents. The dossier detailed the MP's legal and business affairs (she had been a director, shareholder and employee of his consultancy company). Some of the material was broadcast and published, notably in a TVS documentary. But it was not until April 1989 that the full extent of Browne's mainly overseas commercial interests were revealed. He was trying to introduce a 'Protection of Privacy' bill. This included a clause which could have prevented journalists investigating the 'personal financial affairs' of individuals. There was a 'public interest' provision but this depended on reporters convincing a single judge that their inquiries could be so justified.
As Browne was one of the people who had most to gain from his legislation, World In Action conducted an investigation into the potential effects of the bill on the sponsor's own business activities. Based on the author's documents, the programme pulled together the known evidence and made new disclosures on the lobbying of the Prime Minister on the subject of a lucrative Saudi Arabian commission, on the existence of a secret off-shore Bermudan Trust and on speaking out on cable TV without declaring an interest.
Several of Browne's Winchester constituents were concerned about these revelations. One of them, Mrs Betty Cleary, an active and experienced Conservative Party member, was so disturbed that she wrote to the Registrar to complain. However, because of the select committee's bizarre procedure, she was unable to take it further. She believed it was unreasonable to expect her not only to provide all the documentary evidence but also to pursue the complaint on her own without possessing detailed knowledge of the allegations.
It was only when David Leigh, the top investigative journalist then working for the Observer, made an official complaint that the Browne inquiry was launched. Leigh had written some articles with the author on the MP's commercial activities and knew about the case. And so, after being supplied with all the documentation, he was able skilfully to present and explain the evidence before the select committee.
As it happened, the Browne inquiry was conducted with scrupulous attention to detail and objectivity. But only one witness was called and avenues of inquiry were not pursued because of lack of time and resources.
Thus the odds are stacked against the complainant. The Registrar will refer a case to the select committee only if documentary proof is handed to hiMPersonally. As a committee of inquiry is usually the arena where such evidence is obtained often through testimony - this ensures that few cases are examined.
An example of the difficulties the public face involved allegations about the Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. In July 1990, one of her constituents, Mrs Cecilia Darlington, wrote to the Registrar claimiing that Dunwoody had not declared consultancy fees from an anti-Channel Tunnel lobbying company (see chapter 6). Mrs Darling-ton attached newspaper articles to her letter and concluded: 'I hope you will investigate this complaint.' James Hastings, the Registrar, responded by sending her a copy of the complaints procedure. As both Dunwoody and the lobbying company declined to reply to letters on the issue, nothing was done.
Mrs Darlington then enlisted the help of her local Conservative councillor, Brian Silvester. He raised the matter with Tory MP Peter Viggers, a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. Viggers spoke to Hastings, but the Registrar told him that he did 'not consider press reports to represent sufficient evidence' for him to refer the case to the committee.
This was a remarkable response, given that most complaints had originally been based on TV and press reports. But Hastings was applying the strict letter of the rules. This enraged Silvester. 'It is virtually impossible for the average citizen to get a complaint against an MP investigated by the select committee,' he told me. 'The whole thing is a sham and a façade.'
Outside the law
Another remedy and form of accountability that MPs seem to have eluded is the criminal law. Officially, MPs are immune from Prosecution for corruption if the offences are committed in Parliament.
The benchmark for the application of the corruption law to MPs was the 1976 Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life. Their report stated that:
- Neither the statutory nor the common law applies to the bribery or attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament in respect of his parliamentary activities.
It is clear to us that an MP cannot, in that capacity, be deemed an 'agent' for the purposes of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. It is equally clear that Parliament could not be deemed to be a 'public body' for the purposes of the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889. Nor does membership of Parliament, as such, constitute public office for the purposes of the common law.
The legal loophole was confirmed at the time by the Labour Prime Minister James (now Lord) Callaghan, who said: 'A Member who accepts a bribe in return for some action which is a proceeding in Parliament cannot be the subject of criminal proceedings.'
In more recent years the Conservative government has also refused to apply the criminal law to MPs. 'The House itself has remedies available to it in the event of bribery of a Member of Parliament,' said John Wakeham, then Leader of the Commons, in 1987. Three years later, in April 1990, this was reaffirmed by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher: 'We would consider bringing forward legislation to make the corruption of Members a criminal offence only if there was clear evidence that the present arrangements were ineffective and the House agreed.'
However, there is evidence that the criminal law could be applied to MPs. According to Graham Zellick, Professor of Public Law at London University, the House of Commons could be deemed a 'public body' for the purposes of the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889.
Section I states that any person who corruptly solicits or receives a fee as an inducement 'to do anything in respect of any transaction whatsoever, actual or proposed, in which the public body is concerned, shall be guilty of an offence.' As the 'public body' is defined as an entity which 'carries out its transactions for the benefit of the public and not for private profit', there is little doubt that the Commons falls into this category and hence within the scope of the Act.
MPs also appear to enjoy immunity from Prosecution under the Common Law. The 1976 Royal Commission justified this by quoting Criminal Law Commissioners who asserted that the expression 'public officer' does 'not include' MPs.
However, Professor Zellick discovered countless legal definitions which established that a 'public officer' is someone who is paid out of national and public funds and serves the public. 'There is certainly nothing in the English authorities,' said Zellick, 'which compels the conclusion that an MP is not a public officer.' So again it is difficult to see how MPs' status can give them legal indemnity.
This is compounded by the issue of liability and the spurious distinction between corruption outside and inside Parliament. A precedent was set in 1923 in the High Court of Australia where the judge ruled that regardless of where the (lobbying) pressure was exerted: It operates as an incentive to the recipient to serve the interest of his paymaster regardless of the public interest, and to use his right to sit and vote in Parliament as a means to bring about the result which he is paid to achieve. It impairs his capacity to exercise a disinterested judgement on the merits of the transaction from the point of view of the public interest, and makes him a servant of the person who pays, him, instead of a representative of the people.
Professor Zellick quotes Isaacs and Rich from the same case:
- He [the MP] has expressly abandoned and effectually impaired... his official liberty in return for personal reward. He has placed himself in a situation embarrassing and inconsistent with that independence to criticise or censure which he is bound to preserve. He has fastened upon himself golden fetters which preclude his freedom of action.
Zellick concluded that MPs do not enjoy general immunity from criminal prosecution if the existing statute law is applied. And yet the government maintains that MPs are exempt from the law if the offence is committed in Parliament.
The essence of the loophole is that the political and judicial estab-lishment do not accept that an MP lobbying for outside bodies in exchange for payment at Westminster is corrupt. According to Lord Orr-Ewing, a member of the 1976 Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life and a former MP: 'It is easy to condemn a bribe, but I do not believe that we have paid enough attention to the difference between a fee for services rendered and a bribe.'
From the point of view of the voter, I would suggest it is difficult to see the difference.
Despite Lord Orr-Ewing's anxieties, the 1976 Royal Commission recommended that 'Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of an MP acting in his parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law.' This proposal has never been debated in the Commons, let alone implemented.
In Canada, where members of the Federal Parliament and provincial legislatures are bracketed together with judges, the issue is taken more seriously. An MP can be jailed for fourteen years if he corruptly accepts 'any money, office or employment….., in respect of anything done by him in his official capacity'. Canadian MPs are also barred from voting on any bill in which they have a pecuniary interest.
Imprisonment is also the sanction in the United States. A member of Congress can be fined $10,000 or jailed for two years, plus disqualification froMPublic office, if he or she 'directly or indirectly receives any compensation for any services rendered'. There is also a tough regulatory code which is constantly being amended. The 1989 Ethics Reform Act requires a complete annual financial disclosure listing all sources of income, including the amounts. In addition, Members may not:
earn more than 15 per cent of their annual salary in outside income; receive fees of more than $2,000 for a speech, public appearance or article; use their official position for personal gain; receive payment for services rendered; accept any form of compensation from a foreign government; contract directly or indirectly with the Federal Government; vote on any matter in which he or she has a pecuniary interest; accept gifts aggregating more than $300 in value, apart from a relative.
These North American safeguards are matched by some Western European democracies. Members of the French National Assembly are prohibited from simultaneously retaining paid positions in the private or public sector. They are also banned from continuing to act as professional lawyers. In Spain new measures have been proposed making it illegal for legislators to do any outside jobs - apart from the one for which they were elected.
The amateurish gentlemanly British Register of Members' Interests and Select Committee pales by comparison. Even when the Register is breached, as with Enoch Powell, it is not enforced.
Defenders of the UK system believe mutual trust and self-regulation to be the only feasible remedy. They argue that the crimi-nal law and tougher rules are not required to counter conflicts of interests and corruption.
I would submit that this is precisely what is required. At the very least, there needs to be a mandatory Register and proper investigat-ory powers for an independent judicial tribunal. Legislation is also required preventing MPs from voting, speaking and lobbying for laws in which they have a financial interest. At the most, MPs should be barred from retaining any paid directorships or consultancies. They should also be obliged to submit their annual tax returns for public inspection.
One rule for MPs, another law for councillors
The government refuses to apply the criminal law to MPs, but councillors are treated rather differently. In local authorities the pecuniary interests of elected representatives are governed by tough legal sanctions.
Councillors are required by law to disclose direct and indirect financial interests in a statutory register. They are also compelled to declare an interest in any matter that comes before the council, a committee or sub-committee. They are then barred from voting or speaking on the issue. After declaring the interest, the councillor must leave the room and take no further part in the proceedings.
Any breach of these rules is a criminal offence and councillors can be jailed or fined by a court of law. This is a sharp contrast to the voluntary guidelines in Parliament. MPs are immune from the law, investigate themselves, are not obliged to declare all their interests and can lobby for their clients without fear of punishment.
The House of Commons really is the best club in town.
The colour of money
Readers of this book may wonder why relatively few Labour MPs feature in it. The answer is simple. Out of the 227 Labour MPs, only sixteen have paid directorships, consultancies, shareholdings or some form of commercial interest.45 Another seventeen are paid advisers to trade unions and professional associations. Of the 372. Conservative MPs, 2.56 have business concerns - and that excludes sixty-one ministers, who are not allowed to retain consultancies and directorships.
The only Labour MP to have faced a potential conflict of interests is Dr John Cunningham, MP for Copeland in Cumbria. Between 1983 and 1989 Cunningham was Shadow Environment Secretary. Part of his portfolio was responsibility for Labour's policy on chemical food additives. In 1986 the Labour Party stated:
It is now recognised that many additives can be harmful. Many children suffer allergic reactions to common colours, anti-oxidants and preserv-atives. Food workers have experienced ill-health from handling certain additives. The UK controls on additives lag behind those of many European countries.
Cunningham was at that time a paid adviser on industrial policy to Albright and Wilson (UK) Ltd, manufacturers of chemical food additives. Since 1985 he has also declared a consultancy with Leather Chemicals and Dow Ltd.
Most of Cunningham's Labour colleagues are sponsored by trade unions. While this is a declarable interest, it is wholly different from the situation of MPs with shares, consultancies and directorships.
There has been some concern about such Members acting as chairmen of select committees. For example, the Labour MP David Marshall is sponsored by the transport workers' union while being chairman of the Commons Transport Select Committee. However, sponsored MPs are not paid by the trade union in question. The £600 a year is remitted to the constituency Labour Party, usually for election expenses. Consequently, as union sponsorship is not a 'pecuniary interest' or of 'material benefit' to an MP, there is virtually no comparison.
Democracy for sale
Some critics of political lobbying and of MPs acting as hired guns do so from a world-weary, cynical perspective. A favourite reference point is the former Labour Cabinet minister Richard Crossman, who famously dismissed the importance of back-benchers. MPs, he quipped, 'run nothing, decide nothing and usually know nothing'.
Essentially, their argument is that lobbyists and corporations are wasting their cash and luncheon vouchers. MPs do not have power and influence. According to Labour MP Austin Mitchell:
- Lobbying [is] self-inflating and feeding on itself. Yet under our elective dictatorship, the legislature is still basically a rubber stamp in the hands of the executive... So lobby as we might, set procedural traps as we might, work as we might, at the end of the day we are largely impotent... We have all the intellectual satisfaction of heckling a steam roller.48
There is, of course, some truth here. Lobbyists and MPs are notorious for making brash and rash promises about their political clout to unsuspecting business clients. In a party-based system, it is also the case that the power of MPs has been exaggerated.
However, there is substantial evidence that MPs can exert considerable influence. Examples in this book include lobbying campaigns by the brewers (see chapter 3), private cleaning contractors (chapter 4) and the Channel Tunnel (chapter 6). Other cases where back-bench pressure has been successful are the Shops Bill, when seventy-two Tory MPs voted with the Opposition, and the Port Employers campaign to abolish the Dock Labour Scheme.
At the very least back-benchers can set the public agenda for their clients, largely by providing free media coverage. They can also obtain confidential information, lobby ministers, civil servants and other MPs privately and propose amendments to bills.
To what extent a hired MP can directly initiate, change or repeal legislation is very difficult to evaluate. That is part of the problem. So much lobbying is conducted in secret. But the question of whether MPs are effective is not the point of this book. The real issue is that many MPs have placed 'For Sale' signs against their names. By accepting payments from outside bodies, they are subverting democracy when they are supposed to be its custodians.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lobbying. It is just a stage name for campaigning. But when companies, foreign governments, PR firms and merchant banks can buy political influence, then lobby-ing becomes a dirty word.
Most important of all are the people an MP is supposed to serve. Many constituents will be shocked to discover that their elected rep-resentative is working for and being paid thousands of pounds by companies of which they may never have heard. MPs need to do more than prove that this arrangement is ethical. They must be completely above suspicion. Only then will democracy remain untainted by corruption.
- ^ Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-viii, p. ii 8.
- ^ Quoted in Lymington Times and New Milton Advertiser, 1 July 1989.
- ^ Guardian, 27 August 1990.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ The Times, 22 March 1990.
- ^ Independent,12 September 1989.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ The Economist, 18 April 1896.
- ^ Letter to Sunday Telegraph, 24 March 1985.
- ^ World In Action, Granada TV, 15 January 1990.
- ^ Andrew Roth, Parliamentary Profiles S-Z, p. 708.
- ^ Letter from Tim Sainsbury to W}} M}} Moffatt, 13 July 1989.
- ^ Brighton and Hove Leader, 1 March 1990.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ The Times, 20 January 1990.
- ^ World In Action, Granada TV, 15 January 1990.
- ^ Letter from James Hastings to Lord Douglas-Hamilton, .19 January 1988}} Quoted in report of Standing Committee of Housing (Scotland) Bill, 21 January 1988, col. 8.
- ^ Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 408, p. 5.
- ^ House of Commons, Hansard, 17 December 1985, col. 240.
- ^ World In Action, Granada TV, 15 January 1990.
- ^ Adam Raphael, Observer, 1 December 1985.
- ^ Financial Times, 19 November 1987.
- ^ Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 44-x, p. 247.
- ^ House of Commons, Hansard, 17 December 1985, col. 217.
- ^ Select Committee on Members' Interests, HC 110, p. 4.
- ^ Official Complaints Procedure of Select Committee on Members' Interests.
- ^ World In Action, Granada TV, 2.4 April 1989.
- ^ Letter from Peter Viggers to Councillor Silvester, 31 January 1991.
- ^ Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life 1974-6, July 1976, Command Paper 6524, para. 307.
- ^ House of Commons, Hansard, 20 October 1976, col. 1446.
- ^ Ibid., 1 December 1987, col. 570w.
- ^ Ibid., 2}} April 1990; col. 393w.
- ^ Graham Zellick, 'Bribery of Members of Parliament and the Criminal Law', Public Law (1979) pp. 31-58.
- ^ Halsbury's Laws of England (3rd ed., 1959), vol. 30, para. 1317}} Quoted in Graham Zellick, Public Law.
- ^ Digest of the Criminal Law, 1878, p. 118.
- ^ Graham Zellick, Public Law, pp. 35-8.
- ^ Ibid., p. 42..
- ^ Ibid., p. 43.
- ^ House of Lords, Hansard, 8 December 1976, col. 650
- ^ Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life,1974-6,Command Paper 6524, para. 311.
- ^ Criminal Code, RSC 1970. Quoted in Graham Zellick, Public Law.
- ^ Paper by Nora Lever, Principal Clerk on Private Members' Business in Canadian Parliament, October 1987.
- ^ Graham Zellick, Public Law, p. 56
- ^ Nora Lever paper, p. 17.
- ^ See Appendix 2 for full list.
- ^ Labour Party policy statement on the environment, 'Putting People First', 27 August 1986. Quoted in Geoffrey Cannon, The Politics of Food (Century Hutchinson, London, 1987), p. 301.
- ^ Alan Doig, Westminster Babylon, p. 20.
- ^ House Magazine, 6 March 1989.