There are few things about which MPs of all parties agree but alarm at growing public mistrust of their profession is one of them. They know that the old slurs against politicians – that “they’re all the same” and “they’re only in it for themselves” – ring bells with more voters today than they have done for decades. And they fear that this growing mistrust poses a real threat to our democracy.
This parliament, which will come to an end in a few weeks time, has been dominated by the scandal of MPs’ expenses, an issue that has seemed to many people to confirm the old slurs in spades. But just when politicians might have been hoping that voters would turn their attention to the more familiar inter-party disputes of a general election campaign, the issue of sleaze has reared its head once more. And it is posing a particular threat to Labour.
Three former Labour cabinet ministers have been caught in a classic journalistic sting in which they appeared to be willing to sell influence for money. Journalists from the Sunday Times and the Channel Four programme, Dispatches, posed as representatives of an American lobbying firm and recorded their discussion with the three as well as several other MPs.
Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, said that, if made the chairman or non-executive director of a company, he’d be willing to lead delegations to lobby government and that he was looking for “something that frankly makes money” by the use of his knowledge and contacts.
Patricia Hewitt, the former health secretary, said that for £3,000 a day she could help “a client who needs a particular regulation removed” or help someone to gain a seat on a government advisory body.
Both Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt strongly denied they had done anything which breached parliamentary or ministerial rules and stressed that they had been talking about what they might be able to do after they had left the Commons, but only then. Both are standing down at the forthcoming election.
Their colleague, Stephen Byers, the former transport minister, went a lot further. He told the journalists posing as lobbyists: “I’m a bit like a sort of cab for hire.” His rates were between £3,000 and £5,000 a day. He boasted: “I still get a lot of confidential information because I’m still linked to No10.” And he claimed that he already had a good record as someone able to influence government decisions.
He said he had persuaded his friend, the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, to tone down a food-labelling regulation on behalf of Tesco, and that he had lobbied the current transport secretary, Lord Adonis, to alter his approach to National Express when it pulled out of the franchise to run the east coast rail line.
Both Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis strongly denied that any of this had happened. And the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, responded to a request from the Tory Party for an inquiry, by saying that permanent secretaries in the departments concerned had confirmed that nothing improper had happened. Mr Byers later said that he had made these examples up. But he denied he had done anything wrong and referred himself to the parliamentary standards commissioner for investigation.
Meanwhile the three former cabinet ministers have been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party. And their erstwhile colleagues still in government and in the party have been quick to condemn their behaviour. Whether or not the three have broken any rules, their party knows they have done both it and the reputation of politics great harm. The issue, once again, is whether the public will trust politicians. The justice secretary, Jack Straw, said the three had brought parliament into disrepute and that the mood against them among Labour MPs was “incendiary”.
In the past there were almost no rules governing the behaviour of members of parliament. They could be trusted, it was thought, because of honour: they were, after all, ‘honourable members’. When it was discovered that perhaps they couldn’t be, rules started to be introduced. That is what has happened over expenses. Now the focus shifts to paid lobbying.
Last year the public administration select committee advocated a compulsory register of lobbyists. The government favoured merely a voluntary one but now seems open to something tougher. The real difficulty lies with ministers and what they should be allowed to do after they leave office. Some argue that ex-ministers should be forbidden from taking jobs that have anything remotely to do with their former work in government. But many would think that so draconian as to deter perfectly honourable politicians from becoming ministers in the first place.
One compromise proposed is for ex-ministers to be prohibited from working for lobbyists whose purposes relate to the departments for which the former ministers used to work. That, at least, would prevent any obvious conflicts of interest from arising, although advocates acknowledge that it might be difficult to police and enforce.
However some critics think even this would be inadequate and argue that MPs should be prohibited from earning any income at all from any source other than their parliamentary salary. To many this is far too draconian. It is useful, they say, for MPs to have experience beyond the confines of Westminster and they ought to be paid for any work they do there. So long as it is declared, as the rules now require, there is no problem, they say.
But clearly there is still a problem, at least as far as public trust is concerned. So what should be done? According to Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, while there should be proper enforcement of existing rules and adequate sanctions for transgression, just increasing the number of rules every time a new scandal breaks is not the answer: “that way lies madness”. What’s needed, he says, is a change in behaviour and culture and a reaffirmation of the values of public service, such as selflessness and integrity. But that is more easily said than done.
Conservatives have always argued that such values are perfectly compatible with legitimate forms of money-making so long as they are above-board and publicly acknowledged. But for many Labour party members the issue is much more problematic. Many of them have never been happy with New Labour’s claim to be, in Lord Mandelson’s famous phrase, “supremely relaxed” about the filthy rich (so long as they pay their taxes). Many feel real distaste at the way their former leader, Tony Blair, seems to them to be parading the millions that he is earning now he is out of office. In their view the proper Labour ethos is a very different: it’s the one borne witness to in the behaviour of another former leader, Clement Attlee, who, after leaving Downing Street, was often seen going home from the Commons on the bus.
The issue, then, is perhaps not just whether such an ethos of public service should be restored but whether it can be.
What’s your view? What do you make of the behaviour of Byers, Hoon and Hewitt? Do you think their claims not to have broken any rules is an adequate defence or not? Should they have been suspended from the PLP or not? Do you accept or not the assurance of Sir Gus O’Donnell that no serving ministers or senior officials behaved improperly in this particular case? What do you think should be done to regulate lobbying? In particular, what constraints, if any, do you think should be imposed on former ministers and the work they subsequently take on? And, more generally, do you think the culture of public life can be restored in the way Sir Christopher Kelly would like?