The dust has not yet settled on one of the biggest political scandals for decades, MPs expenses. Politicians of all persuasions have been affected, leaving the public disillusioned and angry about the system and those who use it for their personal gain.
Surely it can’t get any worse for our political class? Oh yes it can!
Not content with claiming taxpayers’ money for duck houses and bath plugs, some MPs and Peers are now willing to lobby government and influence policy for a rather modest fee of £3000 to £5000 a day.
The recent allegations aimed at those featured in Monday night’s Dispatches programme on Channel 4 has brought lobbying to the public’s attention. Seen by many as shady and sleazy, there have long been questions about the ‘revolving door’ between politics and business.
The lobbying industry, said to be worth £2 billion, is where you will find hundreds of ex-MPs, advisers and officials all using their personal knowledge and experience to their and their clients’ advantage.
Recent accusations concerning former Labour ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon are most certainly embarrassing, but there is no suggestion they have done anything wrong. Like the expenses scandal, they claim to have kept within the rules.
Within the rules and in the public interest?
Current rules state that sitting MPs can work for corporate clients but they must declare any payment in the register of members’ interests. Any paid work taken by an ex-minister within two years of leaving office must be cleared by a panel – the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) and they are not allowed to table amendments or vote on bills in exchange for payment.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life also lists seven key principles that those in public service should adhere to. The first of which reads:
‘Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.’
This is totally at odds with the approach of former transport secretary Stephen Byers who described himself as ‘like a cab for hire’. The MP for North Tyneside openly bragged that he had played a role in influencing government decisions relating to National Express and Tesco.
Although Stephen Byers has since said he exaggerated the claims, it leaves a dark cloud hanging over the world of lobbying and business.
Former health secretary Patricia Hewitt is said to earn over £180,000 a year from work outside of her role as an MP. She currently works for companies such as Barclays, Boots and BT and although all of the following have been agreed by the committee in charge of monitoring outside jobs, ACOBA, can her role in political life be kept separate from her business interests?
But is it so wrong that soon to be ex-MPs can make money from their knowledge and contacts gained in political life? Lobbying is a fact of life in most democracies and even campaigners against it are not calling for an outright ban.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to have earned £20 million since leaving Downing Street in 2007, so why should former colleagues not also gain benefits from their knowledge?
Calls for transparency
Tamasin Cave, of campaign group The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, said: “What is wrong is when it happens behind the scenes and when it is opaque. When the public can not see how public policy is being influenced then we have a problem.”
The need for greater transparency in the lobbying industry has been very apparent over the past year.
Conservative leader David Cameron shocked the industry in February when he said it had got out of hand and was the next big political scandal waiting to happen. The Conservative leader has described the latest revelations as ‘scandals worse than those in the 1990s’.
The Liberal Democrats have also called for far greater transparency as part of a wider clean-up of politics. Party leader Nick Clegg has said: “I think people are so fed up with the way money and greed is corrupting our politics and it’s why I’ve always said we need to go far further than reforming MPs expenses – we need to reform the whole rotten system”.
Register rejected in favour of self-regulation
The government last year rejected calls by the Public Administration Committee for a statutory register of lobbying activity, instead giving the lobbying industry a final chance to get its house in order through self-regulation and vowed to publish details of ministerial meetings with interest groups.
But the latest revelations have led the government to announce plans to regulate the lobbying industry at Westminster as a manifesto pledge.
The CIPR have also been working on creating transparency amongst their members with the proposed introduction of a public register of clients. The move is expected to be agreed at the AGM on 15 June and is likely to affect CIPR members including Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Peter Bingle.
One senior lobbyist told PR Week in February that: ‘If everything goes according to plan, the CIPR will have to change its code of conduct. Certain people will then have to take a decision and it is hard to see how it can be fudged. In other words, either they declare their clients and stay in the CIPR under the Public Affairs Council umbrella – or they don’t declare them, in which case they would be unable to remain CIPR members.’
Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have now been suspended from the parliamentary Labour party, along with Margaret Moran. Conservative MP Mr Butterfill (who is no longer expected to move to the House of Lords) has referred himself to the standards commissioner and Baroness Morgan has already referred herself to the sub-committee on Lords’ interests.
At the next election 140 MPs will stand down and unless tough action is taken it will be difficult to stop MPs and former ministers who are coming to the end of their time in Parliament searching for an alternative livelihood, in their most marketable asset – the contact book.