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Snouts in the trough

Profiteering while being an elected MP is a practice as old as the hills, particularly for the Tories, writes STEVEN WALKER

THE recent spectacular resignation of corrupt MP Owen Paterson is only the latest in a series of scandals involving MPs shoving their snouts in the greedy trough. 

The government refuses to release minutes of a phone call last spring between Paterson and the health minister Lord Bethell, which took place just days before Randox, one of the companies he worked for, got a £133 million deal to supply and analyse Covid test kits.

In 1994 news broke of a corrupt financial transaction involving the owner of Harrods Department store in London and two Tory MPs. Harrods boss Mohammad al-Fayed confirmed he paid parliamentary lobbyist Ian Greer to arrange for then MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith to table parliamentary questions on his behalf at £2,000 a time.

The scandal prompted the then prime minister John Major to instigate the Nolan Committee to review the issue of standards in public life. 

Major’s government was awash with corruption involving the murky world of political lobbying, cash for questions and revolving door jobs for ex-ministers. They gained financially by getting jobs in industries where they had no real expertise but plenty of inside contacts to steer businesses towards lucrative government work.

The Nolan committee reported in 1995, recommending full disclosure of MPs’ outside interests and formulating an ethical code of conduct meant to deter corruption. It didn’t.

Since 2016 there have been 27 investigations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, a further 17 official complaints were not progressed. Boris Johnson has had three formal complaints against him investigated in the last five years. 

Twenty of those investigated MPs belonged to the Tory Party while seven were Labour politicians. In 2020, the investigative organisation Transparency International UK counted at least 30 different potential breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rules. 

One of them involved the then secretary of state for housing, Robert Jenrick, who expedited a Conservative Party donor’s planning application for a £1 billion scheme in London’s docklands which would have saved the developer £40m in community levies. 

The pair had discussed the development at a fundraising dinner. His decision to authorise the development was eventually found unlawful.

Almost 100 years ago the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 made the sale of peerages or any other honours illegal. The Act was brought in after the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George was openly peddling honours for sale. Lloyd George charged £10,000 for a knighthood, £30,000 for a baronetcy and £50,000 upwards for a peerage. 

The practice came to a halt with the notorious 1922 Birthday List, which contained the names of Sir Joseph Robinson, a South African gold and diamond magnate who had been convicted of fraud and fined £500,000 a few months earlier, Sir William Vestey, a multimillionaire meat importer notorious for his tax evasion, Samuel Waring, who had been accused of War profiteering and Archibald Williamson whose oil firm had allegedly traded with the enemy during the war. 

Fast forward to 2006 when the Metropolitan Police investigated £5 million given by four wealthy businessmen to the Labour Party during the 2005 general election campaign. 

They were subsequently nominated by Tony Blair for peerages. The police interviewed 136 people including Blair, the first ever prime minister to be questioned by police as part of a political corruption inquiry. 

In 2007 the police handed a 216-page report with 6,300 supporting documents to the Crown Prosecution Service which failed to press charges. 

To this date, the Act has never been successfully used to convict anyone involved in the sale of UK honours. Since 2010 nine former Tory Party treasurers have been made lords after donating £3 million to their party.

Seventy three contracts worth more than £3.7bn were dished out at the start of the pandemic, 30 had connections to the Tory Party. £255m worth of contracts went to 10 firms that were less than 60 days old, created simply to engage in profiteering.

The register of MPs’ interests shows that more than 90 out of 360 Tories have extra jobs on top of their work in parliament, compared with three from Labour. 

The highest earners were all former cabinet ministers. Thirty MPs have consultancy roles earning £4 million in the past 10 years. Apart from three all of them are Tories.

Opinion pollsters have tracked the public’s distrust of elected politicians and have recorded the lowest numbers in 40 years. The latest Politico poll found only 15 per cent of the public actually trusted politicians. 

Yet MPs complain about abusive messages and harassment by outraged members of the public who on a regular basis see them squandering taxpayers’ money, rewarded for failure, promoted on the basis of loyalty rather than talent, engaging in corrupt lobbying and filling their pockets with outlandish expenses claims. 

They do this while regularly attacking working-class voters by cutting universal credit benefits, passing laws that punish the poorest and most vulnerable citizens by hollowing out the welfare state and underfunding the NHS.

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