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A brief history of sleaze in British politics

As a society we expect those in positions of authority and influence to act with integrity, or at least we hope that they will. However, in the mid-1990s there was a explosion in the amount of criticism of MPs for alleged `sleazy' behaviour. Most of the complaints centred on MPs accepting remuneration for attempting to influence the Commons in ways that were of benefit to their secret paymasters, and not to their constituents as decency dictates.

In fact, sleaze in the Commons is not a new thing. As early as 1695 the Commons passed a resolution making it a `high crime' for an MP to accept money for the `promoting of any matter whatsoever'. Presumably, there was a good reason for this.

Conventionally, MPs were expected to refrain from voting on matters in which they had personal interests, but this was interpreted narrowly; in a decision of the speaker in 1811 it was limited to a direct, pecuniary interest. Then in 1845, a resolution was passed deeming it to be improper for a member to `promote or advocate' any cause in Parliament in which he had a pecuniary interest. In other words, not only was it forbidden to accept money as a direct payment for promoting a particular interest, it was improper to promote a cause or organisation with which one had any financial connection at all.

Although direct personal patronage of MPs was discouraged by the beginning of the 20th century, the practice of trades unions paying the salaries of MPs remained common until 1910, when in was decided to be illegal by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court, of course). This was unacceptable to the emerging Labour movement, who feared that it would be financially impractical for Labour MPs to retain their seats. These concerns, among others, led to the introduction of salaries for all MPs, rather than just for ministers, in 1911. Of course, the existence and size of MPs' salaries continues to be a matter of debate.

In 1945, it was resolved by the Commons that it would be a breach of Parliamentary privilege to accept payment for tabling questions.

In short, over the years the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have been drawn in. This has not prevented some MPs acting in ways which are on the limits of acceptable behaviour and, in a few cases, outside these limits. Partly this is because it has not always been clear what the limits are. This was highlighted in 1947 by the case of WJ Brown MP and his relationship with a civil service union. Mr Brown was remunerated by the union to act as its Parliamentary adviser, in a contract which stipulated that he should deal with matters arising in Parliament which were of interest to the union. The contract was quite lucrative for Mr Brown, so when political disagreements the union led to threats that the contract would be terminated, Parliament was right to be concerned that this could influence Mr Brown's behaviour in the Commons.

As a result of this case, the Committee on Privileges ruled that it would be improper for an MP to enter into a contract that sought to `fetter his independence' in Parliament. In addition, no organisation should seek to penalise an MP financially for acting against its interests.

It is now regarded as entirely appropriate that MPs should have to make public any financial interests they have that might impinge on their business in the House. This is, in fact, a relatively recent development. Although there had been an convention for many years that MPs should declare their interests when speaking in debates, this convention did not extend to answering questions or correspondence. In 1969 a select committee was convened to consider this issue. Despite considerable pressure to establish a compulsory register, the committee instead recommended that declaration of interests be formalised by a resolution of the House. This was duly done in 1974. A year later, however, a compulsory register of interests was in fact established. This was as a direct of the Poulson affair, which did a great deal to harm the reputation of Parliament and the civil service. After architect John Poulson's business collapsed in 1972, an investigation revealed that it had been making payments to several MPs, senior police officers, health authorities, and civil servants. The register was placed under the control of a clerk of the Commons, supervised by a select committee on member's interests.

There were at least three problems with the register. First, it was not clear from the start which interests had to be declared and which need not be. Second, some MPs believed that once an interest had been registered it was legitimised. Third, breaches of the requirement to register were not always penalised, even when flagrant. Enoch Powell MP, for example, steadfastly refused to register any of his private interests; despite recommendations to the Commons that some some sanction be applied, in the end no action was taken. Mr Powell's position was that only statute could impose enforceable duties on MPs.

Another problem with the register was that, although MPs were required to disclose whom they received payment from directly, they were not obliged to describe the exact nature of the work they performed. Thus the real interests being served could remain concealed. This meant that there was little to prevent the rapid growth, in the 1980s, of what are now termed `parliamentary general consultancies'. These were, and are, arrangements between MPs and political lobbying firms that may represent a large number of clients. There have been many allegations that these firms behave in deeply improper ways, including offering direct bribes to MPs to speak for or against Parliamentary Bills. The Observer newspaper published a series of articles between 1984 and 1990 alleging that political lobbyist Ian Greer habitually made payments to MPs to table Parliamentary questions. There was no doubt that Greer had made payments to MPs to act in an advisory capacity -- this, in itself, was unobjectionable -- but the difficulty in distinguishing paid advice from paid advocacy was a cause for concern.

In recent times, the case that probably brought about the largest change in the way that MPs' financial interests are regulated is `cash for questions' affair, over which Neil Hamilton MP and Tim Smith MP resigned in 1995. The allegations were first raised by the Guardian newspaper, which claimed that Smith and Hamilton had accepted payments from Ian Greer for tabling questions on behalf of Mohammed Al Fayed. In the ensuing defamation action by Hamilton against the Guardian and Al Fayed, it came to light that Hamilton had accepted hospitality and payments which he had not declared on the register of member's interests.

The media outcry over the `cash for questions' scandal led to the appointment in 1995 of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (`Nolan Committee'), to investigate it, along with other related issues. Most of Nolan's recommendations were accepted by the House in 1996, but some are still under discussion. While the committee did not find conclusive evidence that corruption was on the increase, it did note a widespread lack of public confidence in the integrity of MPs; in particular, it claimed that over 60% of people believed that it was commonplace for MPs to use their privileges for financial gain.

The committee was particularly critical of the effectiveness of the system for registering members' interests, and recommended the establishment of a new officer of the House -- the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards -- to maintain the register and advise MPs on their obligations. It also recommended the creation of a new Committee on Standards and Privileges, to replace the existing Committee on Privileges and to oversee the work of the Commissioner. The committee also published a code of practice for MPs, and recommended that new MPs be given training in ethics. One of the reasons the committee found for poor compliance with the requirements of the register of interests was that members did not properly understanding the binding nature of resolutions of the house.

The committee noted that almost 70% of back-bench MPs had financial arrangements with external organisations that were directly dependent on their positions as MPs. Despite this, it did not recommend that MPs should be prohibited from working outside Parliament. In general, it was felt that the existence of outside professional interests broadened the outlook of individual members and made them more valuable to Parliament. There was also concern that abrogating the right to take external paid employment would deter many potentially good MPs from serving.

Concerning `general consultancies', the committee was adamant that these should be banned, but as yet this recommendation has not been implemented. However, the House did resolve to strengthen the prohibition on paid advocacy, and insist that MPs that are involved with multi-client lobbying firms deposit full details of their contracts with the register of interests. Another recommendation that was not implemented -- after being defeated in a heated debate -- was that members should have to declare not merely the existence of outside interests, but details of the earnings they attract. This issue remains problematic, as we shall see.

The Committee for Standards in Public Life continues to operate, and since its inception has published reports on the funding of political parties, quangos, and special advisers to ministers, among other things.

The first Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, was almost immediately called on to investigate the allegations against Neil Hamilton -- partly, it has to be said, at the request of Mr Hamilton himself. Although he did not give much credit to the Guardian's reports, he still found that Mr Hamilton was probably guilty of improper conduct. In his first -- 800 page -- report, published in 1997, four other MPs were criticised for failing to register their interests as required.

While most commentators praised Sir Gordon's thoroughness, many felt that enquiries about the behaviour of individual MPs should be conducted according to legal principles, and in public, using powers laid down in statute. His successor, Elizabeth Filkin was, if anything, even more dogged and uncompromising. MPs that fell foul of her investigations include:

It seems clear that Ms Filkin's approach to her duties discomforted many MPs. The main criticism was that she referred individual MPs for investigation by the committee on standards and privileges when there was insufficient evidence that they were guilty of any misdemeanour. Although Ms Filkin felt very strongly that the size of an MPs earnings be declared -- and this view was, and is, widely supported -- the current House rules do not mandate this. Although it could be argued that the investigations eventually exonerated the MPs, and therefore no harm was done, in fact the affected MPs were exposed to unwelcome media attention. The very fact that they were to be investigated may have been enough to damage these MP's reputations. In the end, the attitude of the House to Ms Filkin became very polarised, with very strong support and very strong dissent. and she announced that she would not seek to renew her appointment when it expired in 2001.

Her successor, Philip Mawer, was widely welcomed, but there are concerns that the Commons is trying to de-emphasise the importance of the commissioner role, by making it a part-time role.

What have we learned from all this? It is not entirely clear that the Commons is able to regulate the behaviour of its own members to an extent that satisfies the public. But if the Commons cannot regulate itself, who will regulate it? While the way in which ministers and public officials exercise their duties with respect to the public is subject to judicial review, the historic supremacy of Parliament has meant that courts have declined to become involved in disputes about the internal business of the Commons. An early example of this is Ashby v White (1703); more recently the right of Parliament to regulate its own procedures was reasserted in British Railways Board v Pickin. There continue to be calls for a fully-independent commission to monitor the financial interests of MPs, with powers laid down in statute and enforceable by the courts. However, Parliament has steadfastly refused to accept such an imposition, and there is no evidence at present that its attitude is softening.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]