John Lehal: Parliament must get its house in order

Written by John Lehal on 23 February 2015 in Opinion

It amazes me that some MPs are so quick to consider outside interests, with not a thought about the risk to public perception of inappropriate influence.

That rogues' gallery featuring Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Patrick Mercer, Tim Yeo, Lord Jack Cunningham and Lord John Laird has been joined by two new members as Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw became the latest Parliamentarians to be embroiled in a "cash for access" scandal.

The Westminster village is poised for Dispatches to be broadcast at 8pm on Channel 4 to find out the specifics, but us having all been here before in the dying days of the last Parliament, I fear that the footage will be all too predictable. I can't say I've been particularly shocked at what I seen so far.

As well being MP for Kensington and Chelsea, and in addition to packing in £800,000 of outside interests since 2010, Sir Malcolm chairs the increasingly powerful Intelligence and Security Committee. The nine-strong committee of Parliamentary grandees has a high-profile role in examining the UK's three intelligence agencies, as well as oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of government. Despite these demanding roles (and slightly more surprising perhaps), Rifkind claimed that "you'd be surprised how much free time I have".

Nor was I taken aback that both MPs were quick to self-refer to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, safe in the knowledge that the current commissioner Kathryn Hudson will barely have commenced her inquiries when Parliament is dissolved next month.

I wasn't particularly stunned by their £5,000 daily rate - clearly it is in the ballpark that I'd expect a former foreign secretary to charge to serve on advisory boards or deliver speeches. Although as we will no doubt see in vox-pops from their constituencies, the reaction to £5,000 a day in Blackburn will be a world apart from that in Kensington and Chelsea.

As I read the transcript, I found myself questioning whether it was bluster and over-claiming in a bid to land a lucrative contract as Jack Straw claimed to have "got in to see the relevant director general and his officials in Brussels and we got the sugar regulations changed." Or was Straw practising on the undercover journalists the very same "combination of charm and menace" that he felt was the secret of his success?

Nor was I alarmed at his suggestion that he could end up in the House of Lords. He said that nothing had been said to him officially, nor will it now, I suspect, Mr Straw.

What amazes me however, is that, as we have seen in previous 'scandals', there remain a diminishing few Parliamentarians who are so quick to consider outside interests, with not a thought about the risk to public perception of inappropriate influence. That they are naïve to these undercover stings is laughable, but to offer in a meeting to write to a Minister without naming "who was asking" is inexcusable conduct by someone who has held a great office of state. Their behaviour will be regarded as grubby, greedy and grotesque.

In the days following the Dispatches documentary in 2010, David Cameron offered a kneejerk proposal to introduce measures to ensure the lobbying industry does not become his then predicted 'next big scandal'.

This was quietly parked until Patrick Mercer, Tim Yeo and Lord Cunningham's clumsy efforts were exposed three years later. On that occasion a Bill was hastily crowbarred into the Government's legislative agenda, with the resulting Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 universally panned by practitioners, charities, trade bodies, media, Select Committees and the Opposition.

Nevertheless, the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists is proceeding with her plans to publish the first register before the end of March.

The register will declare any direct communication made by lobbying companies on behalf of clients, to a Minister, Permanent Secretary or other Government representatives. This has been accepted by the industry and will shine a light on contact made with Ministers and their private offices.

However, as every high-profile scandal has shown, no lobbying firm or Minister has ever been involved. As the Government was told repeatedly, the Register in itself will not prevent another scandal, to which tonight's documentary will attest.

In fact, the profession has evolved and many firms are involved in the business of strategy and guidance and may therefore have little, if any, personal contact with Ministers - thus avoiding having to register.

Good lobbying by established firms abides by the highest standards of professional conduct. Personal integrity, ethical conduct and building trust are central to our values at ICG. It has always been thus. But as so many scandals have shown, it is the behaviour of our Parliamentarians that must be beyond reproach if we are to avoid future episodes of Dispatches on the same subject in 2020.

 

About the author

John Lehal is managing director of ICG (Insight Consulting Group)

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