Can MPs resist the temptations?: Stephen Castle examines the conflicts of interests at Westminster

AFTER the last general election, a Conservative MP who acted as a paid consultant to a London merchant bank became a minister, forcing him to resign this advisory post. The bank did not, however, have to advertise the job.

Such a wealth of parliamentary talent put itself forward that a 'beauty contest' was arranged among the three short-listed candidates. The MPs - including a former minister and an ex-Treasury adviser - completed a short essay on their approach to the job before the bank opted for the Treasury man.

Nothing about this rather un-parliamentary scramble breached rules. Yet it is a sign of the intermingling of commerce and politics. All three of the ministers who have resigned in the last year appeared to have breached at least the spirit of parliamentary rules about the separation of public life and money. The position of David Mellor, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, was finished by revelations of his holiday paid for by a Palestinian sympathiser; Norman Lamont's position was weakened by reports that the public purse funded part of his legal fees when he evicted a sex therapist from his home; and last week Michael Mates's fall was accelerated when it emerged that a PR firm had loaned his estranged second wife a Volvo.

Many temptations for MPs spring from political consultancy, now an established element of Westminster life. Anyone who wants a ringside seat at the lobbying spectacle should go to Shepherd's restaurant, five minutes' walk from Big Ben. There, on an average lunchtime, perhaps half a dozen MPs or peers can be seen deep in conversation. At many of the tables - five on one day recently - the bill will be picked up by a parliamentary lobbyist.

One of the growth industries of the 1980s, 'political consultancy' covers parliamentary consultancies, public relations companies and large firms with political liaison units. According to evidence given to the Commons Select Committee on Members' Interests, most pure lobbying firms enjoy annual turnovers ranging from pounds 200,000 to more than pounds 1m.

Directorships are the most obvious way for MPs to boost their earnings. Indeed, one of the ironies of the system requiring disclosure of extra income in the register of members' interests is that some MPs use it to keep track of the most lucrative sidelines. At the height of the poll tax storm, when the Tories were contemplating defeat, one minister reflected on the situation thus: 'I had a really nice collection of directorships which were taken by other MPs when I became a minister. The thing to do is to see who's retiring and line theirs up.'

Lobbying firms often have declared relationships with MPs; Sir Michael Grylls, Conservative MP for Surrey North West, for example, lists a relationship with Ian Greer Associates. But commercial companies, charities, trade unions and other organisations do the same. Inevitably, these worlds intermingle. Because of their contact with commerce, lobbyists are in an ideal position to recommend MPs for directorships and other sinecures.

'Many MPs,' said one lobbyist, 'combine egoism, greed and venality.' Although he estimated the minority of MPs 'for hire' at less than a dozen, he recounted a typical cocktail party conversation with an MP fishing for a sinecure: 'He might say 'I've lost my seat on the Council of Europe.' From that you infer: 'I've lost my attendance allowance.' You ask: 'What are your interests?' He answers eagerly. You promise: 'I'll introduce you to some people'.'

For a retainer of perhaps pounds 5,000 to pounds 6,000 a year, a parliamentary consultant's duties might be onerous, 'opening doors' to ministers or representing the client's case. On the other hand, he or she may do very little. Sometimes the work involves just knocking off a regular, colourful report of parliamentary activities for the client. According to one political consultant: 'It's money for old rope. You can do it by re- hashing the newspapers. The City feels deprived of gossip because all they do there is read the headlines in the Financial Times.'

Sometimes the duties involve booking rooms for parties on the Commons terrace; at the end of 1991, for example, Singapore Airlines hosted a reception in the Commons, arranged by its PR firm, Keene Public Affairs. It was sponsored by Sir Malcolm Thornton, Conservative MP for Crosby, who lists a consultancy with the PR firm in the register of members' interests.

Perhaps more worryingly, taxpayers' money pays consultants too. An Early Day Motion tabled this month expressed concern about Nottingham Health Authority which, in partnership with a private company, paid pounds 6,000 a year, chargeable to a drug and alcohol clinic, 'for parliamentary consultancy services to the honourable Member who was responsible for instigating the scheme'.

Even those not involved with companies as consultants or directors receive perks such as travel. Last June, for example, several MPs - including Bill Walker, Conservative MP for Tayside North, Peter Snape, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, Peter Fry, Conservative MP for Wellingborough, and Graham Riddick, Conservative MP for Colne Valley - flew on the inaugural British Airways flight from London to Jakarta courtesy of BA. Meanwhile, USAir arranged for Anthony Steen, Conservative MP for South Hams, to travel to America to play for the parliamentary tennis team against the US Senate.

Not all visits sound so entertaining. While MPs were in Jakarta, Adam Ingram, Labour MP for East Kilbride, John Home Robertson, Labour MP for East Lothian, and Kim Howells, Labour MP for Pontypridd, were in Fort St Vrain, Colorado, viewing a dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, courtesy of Scottish Nuclear plc.

MPs are also invited to cultural or sporting events, usually by blue chip companies or privatised utilities. Commercial sectors that want to improve their image, like those connected with nuclear power, fit into the same category. According to one Labour MP, such entertainment risks a worrying 'abuse of friendship, holidaying and golfing matches'.

Parliamentarians seem genuinely confused about the proprieties of accepting this sort of hospitality. Discussing Mr Mates's position last week, one minister said: 'This weekend I'm going to Wimbledon as a guest of someone whose business I could ruin through a departmental decision. Is this wrong? I don't know. Where do we draw the line?' The minister is in good company; John Major sometimes attends big sporting events as a guest of leading industrialists.

The value of the loan of a Volvo to Mr Mates's wife would induce hollow laughter in observers of the Italian political scene. Few would argue that British public life is rife with corruption, and even critics of lobbying accept that its activities are mostly legitimate, resting on the provision and exchange of information and the presentation of small firms' views about laws that will affect them.

But greater clarity might improve the situation over hospitality. Some tightening of the rules on lobbying, which would oblige MPs to list not only PR firms for which they work, but also their clients, is likely soon when recommendations from the Select Committee on Members' Interests are discussed in the Commons. If the public is fully aware of all an MP's interests and commercial contacts, his or her activities can be judged accordingly.

(Photograph omitted)

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape