‘A scandal of decades of undue influence’: MPs and Lords providing ‘inappropriate’ parliamentary access to dozens

The PRCA is calling for an overhaul of rules governing who receives parliamentary passes after new analysis found the system is open to abuse, with 210 passes handed to charities, think tanks, business groups, trade unions and consultants.

Parliamentary access to Westminster has come under the spotlight (Photo: Getty Images)
Parliamentary access to Westminster has come under the spotlight (Photo: Getty Images)

Under current rules, sitting MPs and peers are able to hand out a handful of parliamentary passes to researchers and secretaries who are working for them. Passes can also be dished out to spouses, while former MPs also receive them.

The passes provide access to common areas of Parliament, including bars, meeting rooms and other spaces where networking is possible.

The PRCA’s analysis found that people currently working in charities and non-profit organisations have received 105 parliamentary passes, followed by commercial providers (49), think tanks (23) and public affairs consultants, not registered with the PRCA (10) – see breakdown below.

Some of the recipients are engaged in lobbying, according to details listed in the House of Lords and House of Commons registers of members' staff interests.

These include:

  • Sara Ogilvie, the public affairs manager of the Trade Union Congress, who received a pass from Labour peer Lord Monks;
  • Alan Mendoza, the executive director of right-wing think tank The Henry Jackson Society
  • Richard Chapman, the head of parliamentary affairs at the Church of England Archbishops' Council, who was given a pass by the Archbishop of Canterbury;
  • James Roberts, a political director at the Taxpayers' Alliance, who was given a pass by Conservative MP Ben Bradley.

The organisations that have staff who received parliamentary passes vary widely from law firms (including DAC Beachcroft); public affairs firms (including Solidarity Consulting, Political Human, The Ramp Project); think tanks and campaigning groups (including Campaign Against Political Correctness, Conservative Friends of Israel, Countryside Alliance and No Third Runway Coalition); trade unions (including GMB, Unison and Unite); charities and more.

There are several people within these organisations that have specific public affairs job titles, PRWeek has observed.

An 'abuse of power'

Lobbyists registered with the PRCA’s Public Affairs Board are barred from having parliamentary passes.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham told PRWeek he has been offered passes in the past but always declined, and that it is inappropriate for PRCA member lobbyists to possess them.

“It's equally inappropriate for someone who works for a trade union or CBI or think tank or charity to have a pass,” he added.

“Any normal person would say that this is an abuse of power. It appears that MPs and, in particular, members of the House of Lords just give them to their mates and to people whose causes they agree with.

“This is a scandal of decades of undue influence that the parliamentary authorities could stop tomorrow if they wanted to by just insisting the peers and MPs provide proof that the people they're getting passes to actually work for them, rather than being their friends.”

Ingham also finds provisions for spouses and former MPs to receive passes problematic.

A Times investigation found the use of spousal passes had provided access to several partners who work in lobbying, including Lynda Waltho, a former Labour minister who works as public affairs director for Hera Communications, and Ivor Caplin, an ex-Labour MP who runs his own consultancy.

Facebook’s vice-president for EMEA, Nicola Mendelsohn, has also received one, courtesy of her husband, Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn.

There is no suggestion that partners and former MPs are using passes inappropriately, but the system would not be able to prevent pass-holders from casual lobbying within Parliament.

“I think it’s strange, and spouses and former MPs ought not to have passes,” Ingham said.

“In no other part of working life would your husband or wife be given a pass to come to your workplace whenever they want, and in no other part of working life would a former employee be given this access.”

The PRCA is calling on parliamentary authorities to take three steps:

1. Urgently review each pass-holder who has a second job to assess whether it is appropriate for them to continue to hold a pass.

2. Remove passes from anyone whose other roles make it inappropriate for them to have access to the parliamentary estate.

3. Reform the rules on passes to ensure this abuse is ended permanently, and that passes are issued only to people who genuinely need them for their work for peers or MPs.

Liam Herbert, chair of the PRCA Public Affairs Board, said: “It is extraordinary that more than 200 people likely to be lobbying for think tanks, charities, trade unions, business groups, commercial enterprises and others have been given official sanction to have privileged access to parliamentarians.

“No other office building would allow unfettered access to such a huge number of people whose main place of employment is somewhere else – so it is surprising and concerning that an institution that is meant to be a secure location has such a cavalier attitude to the issuing of security passes.

“It is even more surprising that so many of these passes are held by people whose job seems to be to influence the political process. This is unfair, untransparent, and inappropriate.”

Parliamentary response

A House of Commons spokesperson told PRWeek that if an application for a pass described an individual’s role as working for a public affairs firm, government relations or political consultancy, a pass would not be issued.

“Processes are in place to ensure security pass applications can only be made by those with an approved requirement. Members are responsible for ensuring that they only sponsor applications for passes on behalf of people who are genuinely and personally required to support them in carrying out their role,” the spokesperson said.

“Since 2013, passes are not issued to anybody whose primary role is to support an All-Party Parliamentary Group. We do not comment on individual cases.”

A House of Lords spokesperson added: “When members of the House of Lords sponsor a pass they must confirm that they are doing so in order that the person will provide parliamentary secretarial or research assistance to them or is their carer or driver, and that the absence of a pass would make it impossible for that person to support the member effectively. 

“Members’ staff are subject to a Code of Conduct requiring them to register their employment and financial interests and prohibiting them from using their access to the parliamentary email network or to the parliamentary estate to further the interests of an outside person or body from whom they have received or expect to receive payment or other incentive or reward.”

This article has been updated to include statements from the House of Commons and House of Lords.

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