For sale?

Henry McCubbin looks back at the expenses scandal and at the more important issue of Ministers for sale

There is little doubt that the anger among the electorate at the blatant profligacy of MPs with regards to their misuse of public funds for their private comforts was justified. They saw the fearsome sight of their hard earned savings crumbling under the collapse of a banking system that was supposed to be monitored, legislated and regulated by these same elected representatives. The whole episode was beyond satire. Duck houses, flat screen TVs, champagne flutes and a list of consumer wishes even beyond a John Lewis catalogue. From the manner in which it has all died down in the media, one could be lead to believe that the Augean stables had now been cleansed. But was the fiddling of expenses the worst of the wheeling and dealing going on in the Palace of Westminster.

Hardly a week passes by but I hear that our erstwhile business secretary has had a holiday encounter with some business magnate as a matter of pure coincidence. Take Mr Oleg Deripaska for instance, multi billionaire oligarch who first cropped up when Mandelson was an EU commissioner in charge of trade. Next Mandelson is onboard the wealthy Russian’s yacht moored off the Rothschild family’s property on Corfu. He has cropped up again on the fringes of the General Motors negotiations. In fact so prone is Mandelson to bump into the rich and powerful that it would be in the interests of the health and safety of Brown’s government to fit him with a black box.

Politicians’ behaviour has not always been like this. Two small examples from history illustrate this. When Keir Hardie was the member for West Ham, the Liberal section of his backers started to rebel at his insistence in fighting on behalf of the unemployed. His response was that the ILP “starts from the assumption that the worker should be as free industrially and economically as he is supposed to be politically”. But, he went on, “The men who are to achieve these reforms i.e. “socialist politicians”, must be under no obligation whatever to either the landlord or the capitalist, or to any party or organisation representing these interests.”

It can be no accident that the next time such problems surfaced was within the Board of Trade, a forerunner department to Mandelson’s business department. This case concerned the behaviour of John William Belcher MP. In 1946, he was appointed to a junior ministerial post in the government of Clement Attlee as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. Belcher was keen to win support for the government in the business community and networked widely, coming into contact with fraudster, illegal immigrant and undischarged bankrupt, Sidney Stanley. Stanley held himself out to the business community as a “fixer” who could obtain governmental favours for a fee. He arranged gifts for Belcher including a suit, a cigarette case and holiday in Margate, alongside entertainment at various sporting events.

The enquiry concluded that Belcher had been influenced in his public conduct and the police were of the view that he could be charged though Shawcross, on behalf of Attlee, argued that prosecution would not be in the public interest so long as he resigned. Belcher resigned. The civil service, Dalton, Key, Liversidge and others were exonerated. The tribunal led to the establishment of a Committee on Intermediaries to examine “how far persons are making a business of acting as … intermediaries between Government Departments and the public and to report whether the activities of such persons are liable to give rise to abuses…” The first time that the nascent lobbying industry was put under parliamentary examination.Who would have believed then, that for a salary now, although more than Belcher’s book of clothes coupons to get his suit, you could hire an MP like a taxi from a rank? Let us not forget that it was Brown who complained about the Tories having a revolving door between the Cabinet Room in No 10 and the board rooms of the city.

Perhaps the most blatant example of peddling influence is that of Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair. In a report for Middle East online, Christopher King writes “On his resignation as premier, Anthony Blair, who marketed the war for George Bush, was immediately rewarded by the Americans with a job at the investment bank JP Morgan at a salary of GBP 2.5 million per year. This is reported to be the first of a series of posts that could gain him GBP 40 million. JP Morgan is now involved in Iraqi oil and stands to make huge profits by mortgaging future Iraqi oil production. One must ask, “Would Mr Blair have gained these rewards if he had refused to place the UK armed forces at America’s disposal and market the Iraq war to the rest of the world?” All the evidence is that the objective of the war was the seizure of Iraq’s oil resources and Anthony Blair’s objective was money.” Not only has Blair trousered this amount, the costs are still being borne by the people of Iraq and the British taxpayer as Christopher King lists,

  • Over one million Iraqis killed, many more wounded
  • Four to five million Iraqis made refugees, most still displaced
  • Destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure, still unrepaired
  • Widespread destruction of housing and buildings
  • 179 British soldiers killed, probably about 1500 wounded, 222 seriously
  • Waste of approximately GBP 9 billion in direct costs
  • Reprisal attacks and deaths in London and elsewhere, decreased UK security together with huge costs and inconvenience of security precautions
  • Destruction of the United Nation’s authority, loss of UK credibility, a precedent for aggressive warfare, breach of international law, thus decreased world security.

The above makes a duck house good value for money. But what about others still in receipt of public expenses and salary who have sold the privileged position gifted to them by the ordinary voters and taxpayers in the UK. When an MP like Adam Ingram or a Peer like Lord Moonie accept payment for services rendered to companies which profit from public contracts does it never enter their heads that their remuneration from these companies comes from them charging their wages against the contract price. Where else does it comes from or perhaps New Labour looks on capitalists as being latter day alchemists or charitable institutions who create and give money away like the magic tooth fairy. Certainly, according to the Scotsman this analysis applies to Jimmy Hood. They report “It is perhaps the clearest example of money for nothing. Jim Hood, the Scots Labour MP, has admitted pocketing £625 a month – in addition to his MP’s salary of £64,766 – as a consultant for Scottish Coal. This adds up to a £7,500 a year boost to the income of the veteran politician, an MP since 1987 and leader of the Nottinghamshire miners during the strikes of the 1980s. But when he was asked, under new Commons rules on disclosure, how many hours he spent on the consultancy in return for the latest monthly payment, Mr Hood replied: “Nil.” Can I assume he only accepts it because all of the Nottinghamshire miners are in receipt of this payment with its accompanying onerous responsibilities? I think not.

But Jimmy Hood’s example is small beer compared to Ex-Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram who has faced criticism in Mail Online for cashing in with £170,000 in consultancies, including a £55,000 p.a. job from IT firm EDS, which was awarded a four billion MoD contract when Ingram was still working in the department. The MP was blasted for topping up his £63,000 salary with five posts, giving him the highest outside earnings of any Scots politician. In addition to the EDS contract each year he can rake in:

  • £50,000 as non-executive chairman of communications firm SignPoint Secure Ltd
  • £25,000 as director of Argus Scotland Ltd, a design and construction services company.
  • £25,000 as a consultant to Argus Libya UK LLP (gins all round for Megrahi’s release!), which is part of the same group, and
  • £15,000 from the International School for Security and Explosives Education
  • MoD contract
  • Gifts, benefits and hospitality (UK) 28 June 2009, visit to Biggin Hill Air Show as guest of BSkyB. Overnight stay, dinner and entry to the show for my wife and I.
  • Overseas visits 23-26 February 2009, to Bahrain, to participate in Bahrain Security Forum as speaker. Return flight, business class, and three nights accommodation in Bahrain funded by RUSI and the Kingdom of Bahrain. (Registered 3 March 2009).

And poor old Belcher got the sack for a holiday to Margate? But we cannot leave it at that for not only do ex- ministers have their snouts in the trough so too do our unelected members of the House of Lords, some of whom have recently been found out abusing the letter of the law never mind the spirit of ascetic honesty which prevailed during Attlee’s leadership now with two members of the House of Lords with Labour connections being ejected for offering their services to amend legislation. I refer to Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor of Blackburn who were found guilty of offering to try to change the law in return for money.

The privileges committee decided they had broken rules which state that Lords must “always act on their personal honour”, and recommended suspension until the end of the parliamentary session – around six months. Two other Labour peers implicated in the affair, Lord Moonie and Lord Snape, were cleared of any wrongdoing but ordered to apologise to the Lords for “inappropriate” conduct. Lewis Moonie glided smoothly on well oiled rails from Parliamentary under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, first to the House of Lords under the patronage of Gordon Brown who needed Mooonie’s seat due to boundary changes, then he acquired some external interests as Consultant, Sovereign Strategy; and director, Mining Technology; director, AEA Technology. According to the Lords records he became a non-parliamentary consultant acting as a: Member, Advisory Board, Northrop Grumman I.T.

  • Member, Advisory Council, Perseus Global
  • Senior Advisor, Pharmathene Ltd
  • Americium Developments, Edinburgh (£35,000-£40,000 pa)
  • Non-executive Director, Partygaming Plc
  • Trustee, Skillforce (October 2005)

The most recent report on the costs of running the House of Lords was £305 million in 2007-08 (the Commons was £364 million). That is about half a million pounds per member. And remember folks, since a dog is not just for Christmas a Lord is also for life even if it shits on the red benches. The sooner this scandalous waste of public money is ended the better. Membership of a second chamber must not be for life. But should the provision of expenses and accommodation to existing peers be allowed to continue?

According to the Mail online before becoming Chancellor in 2007, “Mr. Darling lodged with Lord Moonie – one of the Labour peers in the ‘cash for amendments’ affair – in a flat in South London. He lived there from around 2003 until January 2005, listing it as his ‘main’ home. This enabled him to claim a total of £45,954 on his ‘second home’ – the family house he bought with his wife Maggie for £570,000 in 1998. The imposing building stands in the heart of Edinburgh’s most desirable area. Before 2004, all ministers had to declare London their ‘main residence’. But even after this rule changed, Mr. Darling continued to list the flat share as his ‘main home’. In 2004/05, he drew another £15,341 for his Scottish home.”

Yet today, 28 August 2009 it has just been revealed that the Labour government has plans that would reduce housing benefit for some claimants by up to £15 a week. About 300,000 people gained from the measure introduced last year. The government says most claimants do not benefit and scrapping it would save £150m but stress it is only a proposal. Since 2008 new housing benefit claimants have been entitled to get up to £15 a week back – £780 a year – if they find accommodation at a lower rent than the level of housing allowance set by their local authority. Shouldn’t we apply these rules to our MPs?

Parsimony for the poor; billions for the bankers. The poor and public sector workers are to pay for the profligacy of the occupants of the Palace of Westminster and the City of London. Yet, as of this year, most of our banks are also in the public sector. What would Keir Hardie or Clement Attlee make of all this now. Hardie certainly had Blair and Mandelson’s measure when at an ILP conference in 1898 in Birmingham he said “To-day they fight to extend markets. This is running the Empire on the lines of a huckster’s shop, and making of our statesmen only glorified bagmen.”