The parliamentary sleaze watchdog is a lumbering beast

Why did it take nearly a year for MP Patrick Mercer to face censure, asks the TV producer behind the sting that felled him

 

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Tuesday was a momentous day for commissioners on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the National Basketball Association Commissioner banned Donald Sterling, owner of a Los Angeles team, from the sport for life and fined him $2.5m (£1.5m). On the same day, the MP Patrick Mercer resigned his Newark seat after the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards threw the book at him, and his fellow MPs accused him of a "sustained and pervasive" breach of parliamentary rules.

The remarks that led to the downfall of both men were made privately and only surfaced after they were secretly recorded. Both made racist remarks, although in Mr Mercer's case this was, arguably, the least of his offences. That is where the comparisons end.

The NBA Commissioner took three days to kick the owner of LA Clippers out of the industry and to fine him $2.5m; the parliamentary sleaze watchdog took a year to reach its conclusions, did not fine Mr Mercer, could not retrieve money he had made in breaking the rules, and could not sack him as an MP. In the meantime, Mr Mercer, working as an independent MP, having lost the Conservative whip, was still paid his MP's salary and enjoyed his Westminster privileges. Almost a year's uncertainty has prevailed.

The Commons process was so laboured that Mr Mercer was able to resign just before the authorities could enforce a six-month ban, appearing on television to claim that he was now – somewhat belatedly – "fessing up". The House of Lords Commissioner for Standards did only slightly better in relation to Lord Laird, taking six months to conclude a parallel inquiry into his activities, and suspend him for four months.

When it finally appeared, the Commons report on Mr Mercer was full, thorough and excoriating. It concluded that he was guilty of asking questions for cash, breaking the rules on paid advocacy and damaging the reputation of the House.

But, still, there seem few excuses for such monumental delays: to coin an appropriate phrase, this was a slam dunk from the get-go. Just watching Panorama: Cash for Questions Undercover last June should have been enough for immediate action, as it contained video proof of Mr Mercer's antics. The newspapers and television news reiterated the case over several days. The authorities were given, as soon as they needed them, copies of the video recordings, along with written transcripts and all relevant email and phone records.

The video material features Mr Mercer in five meetings, four of them in an "office" inhabited by the unlikely-sounding (our own fake) lobbying outfit Alistair Andrews Communications (motto "Our vision is your inspiration"). The recorded sound and pictures are crystal clear and any observer with a modicum of knowledge of Parliament would speedily understand that something was up.

The videos show Mr Mercer signing a contract worth £24,000 a year to help Fijian businesses get their government, a military dictatorship, readmitted to the Commonwealth. Two monthly instalments of £2,000 each were paid and Mr Mercer got to work almost immediately. The videos show discussions with Mr Mercer as he offered to secure a Commons pass, to submit an Early Day Motion, to start an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fiji, and ask questions in the Commons. All of which he then did.

The Early Day Motion that the reporter and I had composed appeared virtually word for word in Hansard very shortly after it was given to Mr Mercer. And he quickly gained support for the formation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fiji. Within a very short time, he had managed to get around 20 MPs and peers to agree to join it. He said that this was an easier job than normal because members of any such Fiji APPG might be allowed to visit the country. He was insistent that this APPG could quickly produce a favourable report, and boasted that he would take it directly to ministers and demand answers.

The speed with which Mr Mercer moved may have saved some of his colleagues from the embarrassment of becoming involved in our investigation. Our research of parliamentary records had flagged up as many as 20 MPs and peers with financial relationships with lobbyists which appeared to be worth exploring.

I am struck by the contrast between the speed with which Mr Mercer could move compared with the months and years that it has taken the authorities to deal with him, and to engage with the lobbying issue that David Cameron called "the next big scandal waiting to happen". After the programme, and more than three years after that call to arms, the Government did put its much-delayed Lobbying Bill on the statute book. However, critics say that the legislation means no change for an estimated 90 per cent of the lobbying business, as in-house lobbyists working for some of the most powerful companies and pressure groups are excluded from registering.

Ironically, the legislation, which has also been criticised for a lack of transparency and become known as the "gagging law", may make life more difficult for the likes of Alistair Andrews Communications. It is never easy to mount such journalistic operations. Registering our company as a genuine lobbying company might have proved one hurdle too far. And in one of his more suspicious moments, even Mr Mercer may have made that one vital call to check and rumbled us.

Pip Clothier runs Snapper TV and produced and directed 'Panorama: Cash for Questions Undercover'

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