Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP

  I am writing to give you my comments on the consultation paper that your Committee issued on proposed amendments to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members. I have read this document and I do have reservations about one or two points in it.

  My main reservation is that the Committee is not contemplating any provision to cover frivolous or vexatious complaints against Members of Parliament. I am afraid that I think that there has been a tendency to lose sight of the original purpose of these rules. There were undoubtedly several cases of improper behaviour on the part of MPs in the last Parliament, which led to considerable public scandal and the need to revisit the Rules of the House. Unfortunately, the resulting rules have become very detailed and legalistic. The result has been that the work of the Committee in the present Parliament has been dominated by a series of complaints based more on process than practical point. Allegations are made against leading Members of the House for political or mischievous reasons, about supposed breaches of the terms of the Rules, which occur in circumstances where no reasonable person could possibly imagine that the conduct of the MP was affected at all.

  I will not single out particular cases from the long list of Reports that you have produced, except perhaps the complaints about William Hague's use of a gym and John Prescott's use of a flat, which were obviously ridiculous and politically motivated. I am not particularly affected by the complaint against me, although that arose in absurd circumstances. I had travelled to a political conference in Greece, paying my own air fare to do so, and the conference was a general discussion on current affairs in which many leading political figures from the United State and Europe, of all political persuasions, took part. I discovered upon leaving that the hotel bill for the delegates was being met by some Greek sponsor, whose name I was unaware of. I then found that the other British participant, Tony Blair, and I were being accused of failing to declare the payment of our hotel bill. As I paid hundreds of pounds to take part in a political discussion, I do not believe that this small benefit from the sponsor of the conference could be regarded by anybody as buying my services as an MP.

  Although the Committee tends to dismiss or issue mild rebukes in these cases, it is unfortunately not how they are perceived by the media or the general public. Even the mildest Report is usually reported somewhere in a snide and suggestive fashion. The general impression has been created that Parliament is consumed by disputes over the financial affairs and propriety of its Members. I fear that the whole process tends only to bring the House of Commons and professional politicians into a lower level of public repute. I think that the system is tending to feed cynicism and apathy about public affairs and politics, which it was originally intended to redress.

  I would therefore suggest that the Committee should be given the discretion to take no action on any complaints which it receives where the allegation, even if true, could not reasonably be thought to influence the MP's actions, speeches or votes in Parliament in any way. It would lighten the burden of the Committee and also result in Reports only being issued when serious complaints of malpractice or corruption were being made.

  The only other detailed point which I would like to address is the section from paragraphs 32-37, about agreements for the provision of services. This is an attempt to sort out a mess which has arisen on the question of paid public lectures or speeches. In one or two recent cases the Committee has started to act on advice that it has received, that frequent paid speeches, when arranged through a speaking agency, should be regarded as the equivalent of employment agreements under the previously approved Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.

  The original resolution of November 1995 required Members to submit a copy of agreements when they undertook to provide services in their capacity as a Member of Parliament. It was quite obvious, in the context of 1995, that the House was intending to address the problem that had arisen from the practice of MPs being hired as Parliamentary "consultants", in order to lobby on behalf of and advise commercial interests of various kinds. The Guide to the Rules put out in July 1996 stated in paragraph 41 that "the new requirement for employment agreements to be put in writing will apply principally to any arrangements whereby a Member may offer advice about Parliamentary matters". Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, it was decided to extend this to other regular commitments outside Parliament, so that regular paid newspaper columns or TV programmes were also drawn in. There is no particular harm in people registering agreements to provide regular newspaper columns or TV appearances, and I have always done so myself. It always was a rather peculiar notion, however, that an agreement to do a regular TV programme for, say, Bloomberg TV, somehow implied an obligation to provide Parliamentary services or advocacy on behalf of the TV company. The extension was completely pointless.

  A very large number of MPs take on paid lecturing or speaking engagements from time to time. In recent months the Committee has suddenly decided that this should be covered by the rule on employment agreements in certain circumstances. It is now being recommended that MPs list the names of organisations that have paid them more than £500 for a lecture or speech. I see little harm in that. However, the argument is being maintained that, if the speeches have been arranged by a speaking agency, then the MPs should put in an employment agreement if the same agency is involved more than three times a year.

  This requirement was an absurdity when such agreements were to be described as employments. The fact is that an MP may accept an invitation to lecture for a fee with some outside company or organisation. His only obligation is to make a speech, and there is not the slightest assumption on either side that he will provide any other kind of service to the company.

  Some organisations choose, for reasons best known to themselves, to approach MPs through speaking agencies. When a Member accepts an engagement of that kind, he is merely entering into an agreement to deliver a lecture at a set time and place, and the speaking agency is acting as the agent of the organisation. There may be cases where the MP enters into some wider agreement, such as an exclusive arrangement with one speaking agency, or some arrangement whereby the speaking agency seeks further work for him. Normally, however, the arrangement is merely that one speech will be given at a set time and place for one fee, which the speaking agency eventually pays on behalf of its client.

  As I read paragraphs 32-34 of the consultation document, a Member is now going to be asked to deposit an agreement for the provision of services if the same agency is involved in three or more of these occasions in a year. I cannot imagine how such an agreement could be drawn up except on the basis of the total fiction that there is some service to be provided in such a case. Where the same agency has arranged more than three speaking engagements in a year, it seems to me the only agreement that could be deposited is that no obligation of any kind had been entered into between the speaking agency and the Member of Parliament, outside the particular speaking engagement involved. I do not see how on earth it can be thought that the speaking agency is expecting any other or any future obligation from the MP concerned.

  The mischief in such a proposal is that it would try to bring such arrangements within the 1995 rules, so that the agreement would be expected to include the amount to be paid for the services to be provided. Taken literally, as there are no services to be provided in future, the response would be nil. However, I have no doubt it would be argued that the Member should specify how much he has been paid for the past services comprised in the three speaking engagements. This will no doubt feed public curiosity about the amount that MPs earn outside Parliament. It has always been the principal desire of some sections of the press and media to obtain information of this kind because they find that their readers are extremely interested in the level of other people's earnings. This, however, is merely pandering to public curiosity and does not serve any worthwhile public interest of the kind that the Committee is supposed to be protecting.

  Hitherto, we have just about succeeded in holding the line that MPs are entitled to the same level of privacy that other citizens are entitled to expect in their activities outside Parliament, when those activities can have no bearing at all on their role as MPs. This really is being rapidly eroded and we do appear to be racing towards the American position, whereby individual tax returns and health records are made freely available to the public. In my opinion, that development has had an extremely damaging effect on the standards of public life and the quality of people attracted into public life in the USA. I do hope, therefore, that we can avoid that in this country.

  I continue to believe that standards of public life in the UK and in the House of Commons in particular remain some of the highest in the world. We are doing ourselves no service by drawing up rules which fit the cynical expectation that scandalous conduct could be uncovered amongst our legislators, so long as ever more complex rules and procedures are drawn up to govern them. I fear that the rules as a whole are becoming pedantic and legalistic. I hope the Committee will consider carefully the two particular proposals that I make to resist this tide.

11 October 2000

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