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Buying and Selling Members of Parliament - Truth about Westminster: Chapter 2 - Page 5

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David Alton is in no doubt that lobbying can alter voting in Parliament and gives the new Sunday Trading laws as an example. (The year) '1994 saw the greatest victory yet of vested interests in Parliament. I think that individual
Members of Parliament and political parties were bought lock, stock and barrel by the powerful Sunday Trading
lobbies. The succession of dinners; champagne receptions at political conferences; contacting constituency parties; hiring of party political figures at the end of the last election; the direct financing of funds of political parties, [all] created an Umbilical link between their interests and those of politicians in this place. They bought Parliament.'

I asked him how much he thought the Sunday Trading lobby had spent. 'Probably tens of millions over the years. Huge sums of money have been poured into the coffers of political parties. By comparison, those who fought against that were like a bow and arrow against an armada with nuclear weapons.'

Of course MPs change their minds for many reasons, and it would be wrong to conclude that just because such a change has taken place after intensive lobbying, that the lobbying necessarily had anything to do with it. In any case it is no shame to change your mind after being presented with another view. However it is sobering to reflect that the sole purpose of both the pro- and the anti-Sunday Trading lobbies was to do precisely that: change the way MPs voted. If there was no effect then presumably every penny of the millions spent was entirely wasted.

So, accepting money to assist companies is a widespread practice among MPs, established over years and deeply rooted in the psyche of the House of Commons. The practice has been fully sanctioned by Parliament, the only restriction being that such paid consultancies have had to be publicly disclosed by the MPs concerned in the Register of Members' Interests. This explains the bizarre and nauseating displays of righteous indignation by MPs when Lord Nolan's inquiry suggested that such behaviour should cease. Many MPs argued in reply that there is a huge difference between offering professional advice on a commercial basis to help people understand how Parliament works, or to interpret political trends, and advising on particular legislation, campaigning on amendments and otherwise assisting in a representational role - including asking questions.

However, as we have seen, on the strictest definition it could be said that all commercial arrangements which affect
actions taken or not taken by MPs are merely forms of bribery. In Canada, Article 119 of the Criminal Code states: '[One who] corruptly accepts or obtains, agrees to accept, or attempts to obtain any money, valuable consideration, office, place or employment for himself or another person in respect of anything done or omitted, or to be done or omitted by him in his official capacity is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years. Should such a general principle not be applied to MPs at Westminster?

After the Poulson scandals, the Commission headed by Lord Salmon recommended that 'Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of Parliament within the ambit of Criminal Law'. In 1976, James Callaghan, then Prime Minister and now a Peer, agreed that 'a Member who accepts a bribe in return for some action which is proceeding in Parliament cannot be the subject of criminal proceedings'. Although Mr Justice Buckley cast some doubt on this in 1992 when dealing with false allegations against Harry Greenway, all legal opinion concurs that this matter is uncertain, to say the least.

Interests in making money


In the 1970s and 1980s so many MPs were being paid by so many different businesses that undue financial influence seemed inevitable. As a result a Register was set up, which was supposed to be a full list of all financial links which might compromise an MP's impartiality. The Register is maintained by a small team on the first floor of Westminster, overseen by a Registrar, and it has always been incomplete.

MPs are required to declare nine types of interest: for example directorships of companies, remunerated employments, trades, professions and vocations, financial sponsorships, and the names of clients when they are making representations to Ministers or civil servants.

Every MP is sent a form to complete after a new election, and thereafter a reminder is sent every year with a fresh form to register changes. The Register was a big step forward but it does not tell the whole story. There are often delays, deliberate omissions and accidental oversights in registration.

Until 1996 the Register did not say if an interest was worth £500 a year or £500,000, which made it very difficult to interpret the significance of an entry. There was great resistance from Conservatives to list the amounts because it was seen as an embarrassing 'invasion of privacy'. Perhaps they would have changed their minds earlier if they had thought that large sums of money were finding their way into the back pockets of Labour MPs from trade unions. There is also no requirement to register directorships where there is no payment at present - an important gap as we will see.

Simon Hughes has always wanted far more information to be disclosed.` 'I think you should require that everyone standing for election states whether they have had any other interests, expressly how much they were paid for them, and what their commitments were. The Register should show the money received, not just the jobs done.' He felt that unpaid positions should also be listed, 'because every other claim on your loyalty ought to be something your electorate know about'.

I asked Lord Ennals what he thought about MPs' disclosure and whether the Lords should have to do the same. Lord Ennals represented Labour in Parliament for almost three decades, half of which was in the Commons with many posts in government .55 'I think the amount ought to be given absolutely. Far more information needs to be known.' But what about copies of contracts being made available for inspection, or even tax returns? 'Never thought of it. I'm more inclined to say "yes". I think if they are going to elect a Member of Parliament, they should know what he is. How much time is he going to give to it if he is a member of ten companies?'
'And the Lords?' I asked.
'I would have no objection to it. Not nearly so important because none of us is paid apart from our expense allowance. Therefore it is expected that people will have outside interests. The second reason is that we have no constituents.'
There is plenty of evidence that commercial lobbying has infiltrated the House of Lords too. A Channel Four Dispatches programme in November 1995 claimed that unnamed Peers were accepting up to £2,000 a time to host receptions for companies in the House of Lords rooms, which are available to Peers free of charge.

Lord Ennals is however against a professional class of full-time politicians, who do no other work. 'I'm not saying there are no circumstances in which people should have no other work. There is something I would find disappointing about a House of Commons where they were all professionals. There are too many of them as it is. I think it ought to be a group of people, men and women, broadly representative of people. And it's a good thing to have a farmer, doctors and nurses.' 56

Ken Livingstone would take disclosure as far as tax returns. 'I think everything should be revealed down to the last penny, including contracts. I'm happy to have my tax returns published. They tend to be much more revealing. First time I stood for Parliament I challenged the other candidates to all open our bank accounts.' 57

One big gap in the Register's usefulness is the omission of unpaid directorships. These are relevant. Clearly unpaid directorships may also involve some sense of obligation or there would be no point in being a director. A sense of obligation is by definition capable of creating a conflict of interest.

Paul Halloran and Mark Hollingsworth made a comprehensive study of the lists of directors of different companies at Companies House and compared them with the lists registered by MPs. 58 They found a large number of directorships had not been registered in the House of Commons, presumably because every single one of them was completely unremunerated and therefore there was no requirement whatsoever to register them at Westminster.

There is one exception to this: it is perfectly in order for MPs to register the directorship of a holding company as a remunerated position, without having to register the names of all the subsidiary companies. However this is another important and confusing gap. The purpose of a Register of Members' Interests is to ensure that everyone is aware of areas of potential conflict of interest. The name of a holding company may not indicate very well that - say - a subsidiary company is involved in arms manufacture or television production.

I have found two examples recently where non-registered directorships (presumably unpaid) have been later registered as paid directorships. This is important and hardly surprising. Take the example of a new company which cannot afford to pay its founding directors for the first year or two. After profits start to grow, income begins to flow.

In such a case one could argue strongly that there was a strong commercial interest in the company from the start, even if no payments were made in early years, and there is no requirement to register. The answer is simple: MPs should indicate all directorships, whether of holding companies or subsidiaries, remunerated or not. An increasing number of MPs are already beginning to do this on a voluntary basis, presumably because they recognise that the public want to know, and should know.

In conclusion, we have seen that almost a third of all MPs are being paid by commercial interests to advise or represent them at Westminster, and that it is not unknown for straight offers of cash to motivate an MP into selective action. However, as we will see when we look at party funding, perhaps another third or more are also vulnerable to union ,string pulling' through individual sponsorship arrangements. Therefore the truth is that by the end of 1995, most MPs were being paid or sponsored by organisations with an interest in what their MPs were doing politically, in arrangements frowned on by the majority of the electorate. This is part of the culture of Westminster. In addition some hundred Peers may be involved in similar activity.

On 6 November 1995 history was made when MPs voted decisively to change their ways, with a ban on all commercial lobbying arrangements from 31 March 1996.

The Register of Members' Interests published on 31 March 1996 was the first under the new rules for disclosure of amounts earned from parliamentary consultancies and other categories of income. The list runs to no fewer than 148 pages of A4 in small print, and lists relevant earnings in various hands. In the text below, 'received £xx- £yy' means that this is the band in which the exact amount lies.

Examples of items declared are as follows. 59
Doug Henderson received £15,001- £20,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd for 'research support' as well as more than 25% of his election expenses at the 1992 General Election from GMB Union. He also received £5,001- £10,000 as Consultant to Machine Tool Technologies Association.

Another example is John Greenaway, who received money as Parliamentary Advisor to the Institute of Insurance Brokers ( £10,001- £15,000), to Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television plc ( £ 10,000- £ 15,000) and to General Healthcare Ltd ( £5,000 - £ 10,000).

Quentin Davies received £20,001- £25,000 as advisor to NatWest Securities and £10,001- £15,000 as Parliamentary Consultant to the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Nigel Forman received £20,001- £25,000 as Political Consultant to Saloman Brothers International Ltd (investment bankers). John Butterfill received £10,001- £15,000 as Parliamentary Advisor to British Insurance and Investment Brokers Association (BI1BA) and £ 10,000- £ 15,000 as Parliamentary Advisor to British Venture Capital Association (BVCA). Jack Aspinwall received for Parliamentary and ' Public Affairs Consultancy £15,001- £20,000 from BAA plc, £5,001- £10,000 from British Gas plc and £5,001- £10,000 from Rentokil plc.

One difficulty is deciding what is and is not related to a parliamentary role. Some MPs have taken the view that many of their sources of outside earnings are entirely unrelated to their parliamentary role, and so have not declared the amounts. In practice it must be hard to determine whether one has obtained a consultancy purely on the basis of non-parliamentary expertise. Nevertheless, the new rules on disclosure have brought far greater openness, with many MPs declaring more detail than is required.

We now need to turn to the question of pay and allowances. What is the truth about MPs' pay? Are MPs being paid too much anyway (particularly in the light of other earnings), the right amount, or scandalously little? Are the rumours true that some MPs fiddle their expenses? And what is the truth about allowance claims by Peers?

The Truth About Westminster

 




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