MPs were facing the prospect of a total ban on making money from outside consultancy work tonight, after two former cabinet ministers were exposed negotiating cash-for-access deals.
Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were suspended by their parties in Westminster after being caught in a sting operation apparently agreeing to use their positions to help a fictitious Hong Kong-based company.
Sir Malcolm was facing calls to step down as chairman of the parliamentary committee which oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies after he had the Conservative whip withdrawn for saying he could arrange “useful access” to every ambassador in London because of his status.
Meanwhile Labour’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was also suspended from his party for boasting of operating “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year.
Both denied any wrong-doing and have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.
But their apparent willingness to accept thousands of pounds a day to work on behalf of commercial interests in addition to their work in the House of Commons has led to renewed calls for a complete ban on MPs taking outside consultancy work.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said he would impose such a ban if the party wins power in May, as well as limiting the amount of money MPs could earn on top of their parliamentary salaries to a maximum of £15,000.
In a letter to David Cameron, he said: “There have been too many scandals about conflicts of interest in recent years. It is time to draw a line under this and ensure these allegations are the last.”
The Liberal Democrats also suggested that they would be in favour of a similar crackdown if they were to form part of the next government.
Graham Allen, chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, said the latest exposé should mean Parliament urgently reopens the debate about what MPs are paid and whether or not the Commons chambers should be full of MPs who had one job only – namely being an MP.
“We need to rob everyone [MPs] of the excuse of saying they cannot afford to be just an MP,” he said.
However David Cameron, who has the largest number of MPs with outside interests and consultancies, said he was opposed to any such ban.
“I think we have very clear rules and they need to be properly enforced,” he said.
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
1/17 Lord Hanningfield
Lord Hanningfield claimed more than £3,000 in a month by regularly 'clocking in' to the House of Lords to claim his £300 daily attendance allowance. The former Conservative leader of Essex Council was also convicted in May 2011 for fiddling his expenses.
2/17 Denis MacShane
The disgraced former Labour minister was jailed for six months at the Old Bailey in July 2013 after admitting making bogus expense claims amounting to nearly £13,000.
3/17 Maria Miller
Although she was cleared of making false expenses claims, Maria Miller was ordered to pay back £5,000 in overclaimed taxpayer-funded expenses on her second home. Mrs Miller’s apology in the Commons lasting just over half a minute was widely viewed as grudging and perfunctory. She resigned over the row in April.
4/17 Eric Joyce
Falkirk MP Eric Joyce was fined £1,500 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in March after admitting abusive behaviour at the city’s airport. Mr Joyce repeatedly hurled insults at baggage handlers, and abused a black police officer during the incident in May 2012. He has said he will now “reflect” on whether to continue at Westminster until the election next year.
5/17 Mark Harper
Immigration minister Mark Harper resigned after it emerged his cleaner was working in the country illegally. Mr Harper quit after he discovered his cleaner, whom he employed at his London flat for seven years, did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
6/17 Lord Rennard
The former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats faced allegations of sexual harassing several women, claims he denies. He was suspended after refusing to bow to calls from Mr Clegg to apologise to the women.
7/17 Mark Menzies
Former Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned as a ministerial aide following allegations made by a Brazilian rent boy in March. The MP for Fylde in Lancashire resigned his position as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) amid allegations which appeared in a tabloid newspaper, some of which he strenuously denied.
8/17 Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi apologised in March for charging the taxpayer £5,822 to heat his stables. It later emerged that he had claimed 31p on his expenses for paperclips, 53p for a holepunch, 63p for ballpoint pens and 89p for a stapler.
9/17 Liam Fox
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned in 2011 over his working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty, which saw the Tory MP ordered to repay £3,000 of expenses for allowing Mr Werritty to live rent-free at his taxpayer-funded second home for a year. Mr Fox faced further embarrassment when it was revealed successfully claimed 3p of taxpayers’ cash for a car journey of fewer than 100 metres.
10/17 Aidan Burley
The ex-Tory MP for Cannock Chase was photographed at a Nazi-themed stag party in 2011. He admitted there had been 'clearly inappropriate behaviour’ by some of the other guests at the party in a French ski resort after the Mail on Sunday published photographs of Mr Burley at the event, where revellers allegedly made Nazi chants and toasted the Third Reich.
11/17 Jeremy Hunt
Mr Hunt admitted to sending a congratulatory text message to News Corp executive James Murdoch just hours before the minister was asked to oversee the firm's bid for BSkyB. Although Downing Street insisted that Mr Hunt had acted properly during the takeover, a Labour MP accused him in the house of deliberately misleading Parliament about his contact with News Corp over the takeover.
12/17 Brian Binley
The Tory MP for Northampton South, allegedly told a local businessmen ‘we are all totally corrupt’ talking about politicians at a drinks party during a taxpayer-funded trip to Malta.
13/17 Tim Yeo
Stood down as the chairman of the influential Energy and Climate Change committee in June 2013 amid allegations he was prepared to use his position to help business clients.
14/17 Chris Huhne
The former Energy Secretary was jailed for eight months in March 2013 for swapping penalty speeding points with ex-wife Vicky Pryce in an offence that the court heard had struck at the heart of the criminal justice system.
15/17 Patrick Mercer
Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip in May last year after he was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' apparently agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji for a pro-Fijian cross-party committee.
16/17 Michael Martin
Former Labour party MP Michael Martin became the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office for more than 300 years following criticism of his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009.
17/17 Jacqui Smith
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stood down in the cabinet reshuffle amid a flurry of controversy after the MPs expenses scandal revealed her husband Richard Timney, who also ran her constituency office, had watched two pay-per-view adult movies which had then, unknown to her, been subject to a claim for reimbursement. The ‘porn scandal’ not only saw the former Labour MP Ms Smith, who was the first female Home Secretary, eventually resign but also saw her lose her parliamentary seat in May 2010.
But he added: “I don’t favour a complete ban on all outside jobs or interests. I think Parliament is enriched by the fact that we have ... a GP doing some time in a practice or people who have small businesses or sit on other businesses and draw some interesting experiences from that, that they can bring to the House of Commons.”
The latest row over cash for access blew up after the two former Foreign Secretaries were filmed boasting about the influence they could bring to bear in the service of a fictitious company set up by the Channel 4 programme Dispatches.
Sir Malcolm is said to have suggested he would be willing to write to ministers on behalf of the company without declaring the name of the firm. “I can write to a minister,” he was recorded as saying. “I wouldn’t name who I was asking for, but I would say, ‘I’ve been asked to establish what your thinking is on X, Y, Z.”
During the meetings Sir Malcolm also described himself as being “self-employed”, saying “nobody pays me a salary” – despite his annual salary as an MP of £67,000. He is said to have discussed his usual fee for his services as being “somewhere in the region of £5,000 to £8,000” for a half a day’s work.
Mr Straw met the undercover reporters at his office in the Commons – a potential breach of Commons rules – where he is said to have explained how he helped ED&F Man – a commodities company with a sugar refinery in Ukraine – change an EU regulation by meeting officials in Brussels for “under-the-radar” talks. He was quoted saying he used “charm and menace” to convince the then Ukrainian Prime Minister to change laws on behalf of the firm.
The veteran MP – who is stepping down in May after 36 years in Parliament – reportedly made clear he would not take on the role while he remained an MP, but is said to have suggested that he could be more helpful to the company if he became a peer, as different rules apply.
Both men took to the airwaves to defend themselves. The Kensington MP Sir Malcolm, who first entered Parliament in 1974, dismissed allegations of wrongdoing as “unfounded”. “If you are trying to attract people of a business or a professional background to serve in the House of Commons, and if they are not ministers, it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000,” he said.
“That sounds a lot to a lot of people earning less than that but the vast majority of people from a business or professional background earn far, far more than that.”
Sir Malcolm said he would “certainly not” stand down as chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
Mr Straw said he had agreed to suspend himself from the Parliamentary Labour Party and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner despite insisting he has done nothing wrong, “because of the way this appears”. He added: “I’m mortified by the fact that I fell into this trap.”
Mr Straw insisted he had been “absolutely scrupulous” in observing all the rules, including on outside interests, and stressed he had not reached any agreement to work with the fictitious company.
His reference to working “under the radar” was intended to reflect the fact that negotiations with the EU were better conducted through “polite and quiet and forensic” private conversations than by “shouting” in public, he said.Reuse content