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

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The Independent Online
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)