Home > Lobbying > MPs for hire

MPs for hire

A Sunday Times/Channel 4 investigation claims that several high-profile MPs are for hire and willing to lobby on behalf of paying private interests.

The journalists approached the MPs claiming to represent a fictitious American company, Anderson Perry. Given that the several members of the House of Lords were caught out by a similar Sunday Times sting in January 2009, I’m surprised the MPs aren’t a little more cautious about what they say and who they talk to.

There is nothing against the law or Parliament’s Code of Conduct for MPs to receive payment for providing advice to outside companies, as long as it is disclosed. There are restrictions on lobbyists, such as the ban on paid advocacy by MPs – but it is not always clear what falls foul of this rule. The guidelines to the MPs Code of Conduct provides:

When a Member is taking part in any parliamentary proceeding or making any approach to a Minister or servant of the Crown, advocacy is prohibited which seeks to confer benefit exclusively upon a body (or individual) outside Parliament, from which the Member has received, is receiving, or expects to receive a financial benefit, or upon any registrable client of such a body (or individual). Otherwise a Member may speak freely on matters which relate to the affairs and interests of a body (or individual) from which he or she receives a financial benefit, provided the benefit is properly registered and declared.

The question is then whether the actions of the MPs related to parliamentary proceedings and whether they were exclusively for the benefit of the paying interest. Some of the allegations suggest that a possible breach of the rule should be investigated, but this is not true for all the claims in the report. For example, one of the allegations made by the Sunday Times/Channel 4 is that a former minister, Stephen Byers, used his inside knowledge of legislation he had worked on to advise the paying company on possible loopholes – this would not, however, relate to a parliamentary proceedings.

Iain Dale has written that one of the MPs ‘ought to stand accused of corruption’ – this is more difficult than deciding if there was a breach of Parliament’s Code of Conduct and questions remain as to whether the current criminal bribery laws can be used against MPs (something the current Bribery Bill should clarify).

The Sunday Times article also quotes Patricia Hewitt, explaining the possible avenues for lobbying:

She listed five ways that a company could contact a minister including by funding think tanks and seminars, hospitality, sponsoring events in party conferences, contacting special advisers and finding a connection with the minister’s constituency.

This shows how payments don’t need to be made to MPs directly to buy access. Funding a think tank, for example, may get you access, but it would not show up on the Register of Members’ Interests. A payment to such a third-party also seems more likely to fall outside the ban on paid advocacy (the guidance to the Code of Conduct mentions only MPs or their relatives receiving “reward or consideration”). The latter point is open to debate, but in any event, it would be harder to get evidence showing a connection between a payment to a think tank and the MPs subsequent conduct.

All of this goes to show the limits and deficiencies of the lobbying controls (which are discussed in chapter 4). We will see what proposals are advanced in response to this (most laws regulating lobbying have been a reaction to some scandal or another).

Unsurprisingly, the MPs deny wrongdoing. While the Sunday Times reports that Stephen Byers told the undercover reports how he influenced government for clients, the newspaper also mentions that the next day Byers ‘sent an email effectively claiming that he had lied throughout the meeting.’ This raises an old question of whether we should ever believe the boasts of a lobbyist – are such statements really revealing the true workings of government or simply drumming up business with potential clients?

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: