Buying and Selling Members of Parliament - Truth about Westminster: Chapter 2

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The Truth About Westminster


'Those who have once been intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though for but one year, can never willingly abandon it.' Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

'Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. 'Ronald Reagan (1911-)

Cash for questions is shocking enough to most members of the public, but unfortunately the rot has been deeper. It was only a tiny problem on the surface of a vast, rapidly growing system of unofficial payments to MPs. In 1995, Lord Nolan found that 30 per cent of all MPs were being paid for consultancies (advice and lobbying) related to their parliamentary role. 35 These were jobs they were only qualified to do because they had seats at Westminster, a direct perk of being elected.

The only purpose of these arrangements was to buy or sell information about Westminster or to gain influence. Very few of these 200 or so MPs would have been able to obtain these commercial roles unless they were or had been MPs. This was the real root of the cash-for-questions affair. Most of the MPs involved were Conservatives, and if you exclude Ministers who are not allowed to accept money, it probably means that in 1995 the majority of Conservative backbenchers were 'spoken for' by one commercial lobby or another. Many MPs had several such interests, worth some tens of thousands of pounds in some cases. Paid consultancies were often attached to large corporations, but whole businesses were set up simply to sell access to senior politicians.

The British people are utterly opposed to MPs offering time on a commercial basis for lobbying, consultancies or even retaining previous long-standing business arrangements. In 1995, it was found that a mere 3-4 per cent agreed that MPs with long-established business interests should be allowed to continue as MPs, or that MPs should be able to speak on matters where they had a financial interest?' 36

So how do lobbying organisations work? One such 'lobbying company' was set up by lan Greer, who began in politics as the Conservative Party's youngest agent, working for Cabinet Minister Peter Walker. He remained a Conservative agent for thirteen years after which he has enjoyed close links with senior Conservative politicians. In 1969 he began lobbying as a business. Ian Greer Associates (IGA) now has a turnover of £3.5 million and employs forty-five staff .37 His clients include British Airways, Cadbury Schweppes and Prime Minister Bhutto. 38 Today it is just one of many companies cashing in on the lobbying industry.

A sign of Ian Greer's status and acceptability is that in 1992 he held a reception at the National Gallery to celebrate ten years in the business. It was attended by the Prime Minister John Major, Norman Lamont, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Wakeham, former Leader of the House of Commons, and the Environment Secretary John Gummer. Ian Greer's credentials are second to none. He first knew John Major when he was just a back-bencher, has dined with him at Chequers, and has been to several parties in Downing Street. However, lan has also developed powerful contacts within the Labour Party. 39

He has made it clear that one or two MPs have not declared the payments he gave them. However, he said he thought accusations of sleaze were exaggerated. 'I'm not really sure much goes on. There's a lot of suggestions ... in the media that much goes on. I'm not aware of anything.' 40

lan Greer has never made any secret of paying MPs but says it was never directly to ask questions. He has never employed an MP as a consultant. Payments were given as ,commissions' if an MP introduced a client to him. This is entirely lawful and permitted by Parliament. lan Greer was the architect of new self-regulation introduced by lobbying companies in 1994 which prohibited members from acting as consultants. He has argued since 1985 for a statutory code of conduct. 41 He wrote then: 'Unless action is taken swiftly to legitimise and regularise the activities of the lobbyist at Westminster, the suspicion and mistrust which is being built up by the unskilled operators will do irreparable damage to an important part of our constitutional process.' 42

Roy Hattersley, formerly on the Labour front bench, has been one of the strongest critics of lobbying. He felt that 'MPs for hire demean democracy. If Lord Nolan and his committee do not propose that Parliament bans lobbyists and the recruitment of MPs to lobby on behalf of private interests, they will have failed to deal with the most pressing problem of standards in public life.' 43 He described 'squalid little events in which integrity and reputations are sold for a few hundred pounds'. But he was embarrassed himself when the Evening Standard reminded him that he had once been paid as a consultant for two months by the US computer giant IBM while he was an MP in the early 1970s. 'Was it two months?' he asked. 'It was twenty years ago and I don't remember exactly. I gave it up very quickly as I did not approve of a number of things the company was involved in. It didn't work for me and I don't see why it should work for anyone else ... I'm sounding very pious. I don't want to. I'm sounding like John the Baptist.' 44

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