Cash-for-access MPs scandal: Two views, from the lobbying industry and Parliament

On Monday, two former foreign secretaries, the Conservative Malcolm Rifkind and Labour's Jack Straw for Labour, were suspended from their parliamentary parties after being secretly filmed apparently offering their services to a fictitious Chinese company for cash in a joint Dispatches/Telegraph investigation. Both insist they have broken no rules. Below, the chair of the APPC and a parliamentary researcher to Paul Farrelly MP give their views.

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson, chairman, Association of Professional Political Consultants and chief counsel, Cicero Group

It's Groundhog Day. Another sting operation just weeks before a general election with no professional lobbyist to be seen.

At least the headlines correctly dubbed this latest story a ‘cash for access’ scandal and not a lobbying one.

It’s been important for our sector to hit the airwaves to make that point again and again in the past couple of years – and I think that point is getting across.

As usual – no lobbyist in sight.

But every time these stories emerge it's bad for politicians and bad for democracy.

So I am asked what should be the price you pay for a politician? It’s a resounding £0 from me. There should be no ‘going rate’, no parliamentarian for hire. Simple as that.

When parliamentarians leave their roles in public life they should – of course – be able to earn a living. And there are clear rules that govern this. They should be followed.

As chairman of the APPC, I am proud to chair a body that has deeply enshrined a code of practice that bans any payments to public policymakers.

Our members operate by that principle – it’s an important badge which, as an industry, we take seriously.

And that’s as it should be. It is vital for the health of our democracy and for the reputation of the public affairs sector that access to politicians is only the result of the arguments you can muster.

Of course the Government’s Lobbying Act would have done absolutely nothing to stop this ‘sting’ operation.

The Act does not capture MPs – only ministers and permanent secretaries.

And at the APPC we reckon it will only cover one per cent of the lobbying that actually takes place – only by consultant lobbyists.

The idea of politicians for hire is as repugnant to me as it is to voters.

But while we have a failed Lobbying Act we will just see the next sting waiting to happen. Rather depressingly it will.

Neil Watkins

Neil Watkins, parliamentary researcher to Paul Farrelly MP

In the wake of any parliamentary scandal, it can be all too easy to adopt a holier-than-thou perspective, attacking those who should have known better and lamenting the few bad apples who, through stupidity or otherwise, throw the credibility of their peers into doubt.

Jack Straw will now realise this better than most and will certainly, following his and Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s induction to the cash for access hall of fame this week, wish he had been more circumspect in his condemnation of his former cabinet colleagues Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon when they fell foul of a similar sting in 2010.

MPs, of course, come in all shapes and sizes and, while some struggle with the idea of asking for money from others under any circumstances, there are clearly others who have few qualms over advertising how highly they value their day’s work.

The relationship between money and political influence is necessarily nebulous, and the idea that Parliament can (or should) rise above the tumult of interest groups seeking to have their voices heard has long been bust.

Almost every evening when Parliament is in session the House of Commons terrace will be filled with lobbyists plying, at great expense, MPs with wine and canapés; far less ostentatiously, meanwhile, parliamentarians meet daily with people – including, but not only, constituents – seeking to influence the public policy agenda.

Most centrally of all, the Commons chamber is regularly populated by MPs prefixing their remarks with qualifying references to their registers of interests – a seemingly catch-all get-out clause that enables some politicians to raise issues or causes in exchange for money without fear of negative consequences.

Before he lost his seat in 2010, for instance, Lembit Opik would parade once a year up and down in front of the Palace of Westminster on a Segway two-wheeler in protest against that vehicle’s exclusion from Britain’s cycle lanes.

Opik received money from Segway, presumably in exchange for his campaign on its behalf, but because those payments were registered with the parliamentary authorities there was never any question of wrongdoing or scandal.

Even the most honest MPs should always be open to public influence – otherwise we do not live in a democracy – but all the same there is an obvious and intuitive sense that some behaviour is simply corrupt.

Even in such seemingly clear-cut cases, though, the Parliamentary Standards Committee (to which both Straw and Rifkind have referred themselves) offers a lifeline to those who break the Spartan law of not getting caught.

The committee, before which one must be sufficiently contrite in order to benefit from its healing powers, offers errant MPs the chance to make amends by prostrating themselves before Parliament and, crucially, correcting their registers of financial interests.

From a parliamentary perspective, the rules of engagement when it comes to lobbying are anything but black and white – which perhaps explains why such seemingly experienced politicians keep falling into the same old traps.

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