Cleansing the (Parliamentary) Augean stables

Robert Henderson

The seemingly  never-ending saga of British politicians behaving immorally (and sometimes criminally) in their financial dealings whilst serving in the Commons or Lords  has taken a new turn with Tory MP Patrick Mercer’s resignation after being exposed by a joint sting by the BBC and the Daily Telegraph ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10092607/Exposed-deal-that-sank-cash-for-questions-MP-Mercer.html).

Mercer  believed he was being signed up by lobbyists to promote the interests of Fiji with a view to getting that country  readmitted  to the Commonwealth from which it had been suspended after  several military coups dismantled any pretence at democracy and the military (staffed by native Fijians) had acted against the Indian minority population of Fiji.

The agreement between Mercer and the bogus lobbyists included payments to Mercer (he received two payments of £2,000 which he did not enter on the Register of Members’ interests),  Mercer creating an All Party Parliament Group (APPG) for Fiji , Mercer arranging for a Commons pass for the lobbyists and Mercer making embarrassing remarks about how easy it would be  to recruit  members because many would see it as a chance to get a free trip to Fiji.  Mercer certainly had no difficulty  in recruiting both MPs and members of the Lords to the APPG, recruiting amongst others the all-purpose Labour MP Keith Vaz and the Labour peer Lord Mackenzie, a retired senior policeman, who works for a company Awards Intelligence which  claims to be able to “help dynamic organisations and individuals to find, enter and win business awards and personal honours such as an OBE, MBE, knighthood or apply to the House of Lords” (http://www.awardsintelligence.co.uk/about-ai.asp).  You couldn’t make it up.

MacKenzie , his fellow Labour peer Lord Cunningham (Jack Cunningham  of Blair’s Cabinet)  and the  Ulster Unionist Lord Laird have all been caught on video by one of the BBC, Daily Telegraph or Sunday Times journalist seemingly offering influence for money – Cunningham asked  of  £144,000 a year ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2334558/Lord-Laird-resigns-whip-Labour-peers-suspended-claims-broke-parliamentary-rules.html).  Mercer has resigned the Tory whip and will not stand at the next election. However, that means he will draw £130,000 plus expenses from the taxpayer.  Mackenzie and  Cunningham have been suspended by Labour  while Laird has resigned his party’s whip.  All three can still sit in the Lords and draw their £300 a day tax free expenses allowance.  It is conceivable that Mercer and the three peers could face criminal investigations but none has begun.

No surprise

None of this shameful behaviour should come as a surprise. In 2010 David Cameron said lobbying would be the next  scandal to hit Parliament. Moreover, the behaviour of many MPs and peers over their expenses had already primed the public to distrust the honesty of modern British politicians.  The question now is what can be done to mend matters?  I suggest this:

1. A ban on any form of material inducement to  an MP, whether r direct or indirect, during or after they have been active in politics.  This would end what  amounts to legalised bribery, namely, the granting of sinecures on company boards or other corporate bodies or the employment of MPs as consultants  as a reward for illicit favours done for the corporation involved whilst in political office, whether that be as a back or front bencher.

2. All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs ) can be set up by any MP able to get 19 members to sign up. They  often provide cover for what are really jollies at a third party’s expense, especially the ones which offer overseas trips.  The groups  fall into two categories : those dealing with a country (hence the many trips abroad) and those dealing with specific subjects – examples are Beer, Pub and Philately ( http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/register.pdf). They have no official standing.

The supposedly “fact-finding”  trips take MPs  away from their parliamentary and/or  constituency  duties, In addition,  they must create a feeling of obligation in  MPs to show they have done something useful on a trip by producing suggestions based on what is done in another society, suggestions which are often wholly inappropriate for Britain or address a problem which does not exist.  MPs should have a holiday allowance of, say eight weeks,  and  any “fact finding trips”  should be undertaken during those eight weeks at the MP’s expense.  The government could continue to send  MPs or peers  on official overseas visits at the taxpayers’ expense.

3.  The granting of passes to Parliament for anyone other than those employed directly by an MP or peer should be forbidden.  Apart from the question of corruption, it renders absurd the security arrangements of Parliament.

4. There should be a bar on MPs  having second jobs even if they are being employed  in work such practising at the Bar or as a GP which does not obviously require them to promote the paymaster/employer’s interest  . There are two reasons for this: (1) the practice  inevitably leads to situations where MPs are compromised because of the competing  demands of their party policy, their own self-interest  or the wishes of an employer/paymaster  and (2) it reduces the amount of time and effort MPs can put into their Parliamentary and constituency work.

The argument that the jobs MPs take keep them in touch with the real world is a nonsense because most are  drawn from a very small range of work such as the law or take jobs as non-executive directors or consultants. The idea that this qualifies them to bring the  everyday experience of the ordinary citizen to their political work or provides a wide range of practical experience and expertise  is risible.   In any case the restriction on who could stand detailed above would ensure that everyone elected would have a decent experience of the world of normal work.

Breaches of these rules  should be made crimes carrying automatic prison sentences  for MPs, peers or any third party offering them material inducements. .

A change in mentality

Most fundamentally, there needs to be a sea-change in how would-be politicians view politics.  At present  an MPs can behave as that dreadful toady of aristocrats Edmund Burke advised MPs  to behave in the 18th century in a speech to the elector of Bristol (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html).  For Burke  an  MP was not bound by what his constituents thought but owed them “his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” something which  he told the electors of Bristol “ he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

That self-serving view gives carte blanche to an MP to more or less behave as he chooses provided he does not commit a criminal act. It is profoundly undemocratic and was doubtless designed by Burke to curry favour with the rich and powerful.

Political office  should not be seen as a career choice, something which it has become  for far too many politicians, but a public service.  To this end no one should be allowed to stand for the House of Commons before the age of thirty-five and only then if the individual concerned has worked for at least ten years in a job absolutely unconnected to politics. This would remove from the Commons MPs who have gone straight from university to work for a political party and who arrive in the Commons with no experience of the real world of work.

Should be paid more?  It is essential that people do not view life as an MP as a means to enrich themselves or otherwise that will be all too often be the primary purpose driving MPs. The current pay of a backbench MP is £66,000. They also get generous pensions and  subsidised bars and restaurants plus various expenses which even if they are not meant to it is possible to make a fair profit on  even under the new expenses regime. That should be a sufficient reward with  the UK full time average wage being s less than £30,000. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority produced its first report on MPs pay and expenses in January 2013 (http://tinyurl.com/MPSISPA) and serious consideration is being given to ideas such as making MPs pay a multiple of the average UK wage. I would favour such an approach because it provide a direct link between wages and  the performance of MPs as a collective body  and automatically change as the average wage changed.

Legal obligations on MPs to do the work  for which they are paid are sorely needed. Parliament only sits for around half the year (House of Commons 129 days in 2012 http://tinyurl.com/HoCDayssat2012 ) and many MPs arrive late on Monday and leave early on Friday.   There is no legal obligation on MPs to attend the Commons or attend to duties in their constituencies and an MP who treats the position cynically can draw their pay whilst doing absolutely nothing until they either strand down or are defeated at the ballot box.  There  needs to be a formal  job description for MPs  detailing what work they are required to do in their constituencies and Parliament and a  means to take disciplinary action if the job remains inadequately done, for example, giving electors in a constituency the right to recall an MP.

More generally, there is a Code of Conduct  which if it was enforced would end most of the abuses. Here  is the most relevant part of it:

 III.  Duties of Members

4.  By virtue of the oath, or affirmation, of allegiance taken by all Members when they are elected to the House, Members have a duty to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors, according to law.

5.  Members have a duty to uphold the law, including the general law against discrimination.

6.  Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; and a special duty to their constituents.

7.  Members should act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity, including in their use of public resources.

IV.  General Principles of Conduct

8.  In carrying out their parliamentary and public duties, Members will be expected to observe the following general principles of conduct identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its First Report as applying to holders of public office.[1] These principles will be taken into account when considering the investigation and determination of any allegations of breaches of the rules of conduct in Part V of the Code.

“Selflessness

Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

Integrity

Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity

In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness

Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Honesty

Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership

Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.”

V.  Rules of Conduct

9.  Members are expected to observe the following rules and associated Resolutions of the House.

10.  Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest.

11.  No Member shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House.[2]

12.  The acceptance by a Member of a bribe to influence his or her conduct as a Member, including any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to, any Bill, Motion, or other matter submitted, or intended to be submitted to the House, or to any Committee of the House, is contrary to the law of Parliament.[3]

13.  Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. They shall always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders.[4]

14.  Information which Members receive in confidence in the course of their parliamentary duties should be used only in connection with those duties. Such information must never be used for the purpose of financial gain.

15.  Members are personally responsible and accountable for ensuring that their use of any expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters. Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties. It should not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else, or confer undue advantage on a political organisation.

16.  Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally.

17.  The Commissioner may not investigate a specific matter under paragraph 16 which relates only to the conduct of a Member in their private and personal lives. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmcode/1885/188501.htm

Although complaints are investigated by a non-politician,  the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Code is rarely enforced with any severity by either the  Committee on Standards and Privileges or the House itself and even where it is enforced severely there are no criminal penalties.  It is all too incestuous. Where appropriate, for example where members or peers have  received money or other material considerations from a third party,  criminal penalties should be attached to the Code and those cases  should be investigated by the police not politicians.  The power of recall by electors could also come into play. It is also  worth noting that the Commons  can expel its own members and the Lords suspend theirs  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10098194/How-Parliament-can-kick-out-crooked-MPs-and-peers-whenever-it-likes.html )

The balance of power in the Commons

The lack of opportunity to line their pockets should  attract a less self-serving kind of MP,  but there also needs to be a carrot as well as a stick. The carrot  should be a shift in the balance of  power between Parliament of the government. If backbenchers had far more chance to influence matters by introducing legislation and voting as their conscience dictates, there would be  more chance of people who were interested in implementing policy rather than getting rich or simply exercising their egos.

The government payroll vote begs to  be greatly  reduced. At present around 150 MPs on the government side are deemed to be part of the government. Even a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) counts as part of the payroll vote. This greatly undermines the importance and influence of backbenchers especially where a government has a large majority. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/creeping-patronage-house-commons-mps-whips).  A Cabinet of 20 with 20 junior ministers is probably sufficient.

Two other things to strengthen Parliament are required. First, party whipping should be stopped. This would not mean governments losing control because most of the time backbenchers will naturally vote the party line.    Second, Parliamentary time should  be substantially  increased by having Parliament sitting for, say, nine months of the year rather than the present six months.  Apart from allowing much more time to scrutinise government legislation, this would allow time for backbenchers to place statutes on the books through their own efforts.

What will change?

David Cameron has promised a register of lobbyists and Nick Clegg has been huffing and puffing about  throwing crooks out of the Lords, but unless the matter is taken out of the hands of politicians by making the more offences breaches of the Code of  Conduct criminal offences dealt with by the police, it is unlikely that anything radical will happen.  That is the tragedy of modern British politics: self-serving not public service  has become the order of the day.

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