Monday, 11 June 2012

Corporate Britain: Parliamentary Rules Not Fit For Purpose


The rules that MPs and Lords are legally obliged to abide by, have failed to prevent the corporate takeover of our politics, leaving our democracy in a parlous state. 

When it was revealed earlier this year that there had been a corporate healthcare takeover of our Lords, the research also highlighted a loop-hole in the rules that fail to prevent Lords and MPs from voting when they have a prejudicial interest. This weakness in the rules, allows companies to attach themselves to our Parliamentarians, providing them with vital access to our elected decision-makers. 

There are several advantages to having an MP or Lord on a company's books, such as they can vote on bills passing through parliament that may benefit their company, receive the latest information on government thinking, giving them an advantage over their peerless competitors, and potentially influence policy. As this article explores, the companies acquiring our politicians recognise the benefits, so why don't the rules?

Take the well established PR agency, Weber Shandwick. They acquired Conservative MP, Priti Patel onto their team when it was established she would be the official Conservative candidate to run for Witham in Essex. At the time, Weber Shandwick UK CEO, and Labour’s former Chief Press Officer, Colin Byrne, said: Priti is one of the brightest young political stars of her generation…Priti is a great hire for us, powerfully connected within Cameron’s Conservatives.’ Essentially, openly admitting our public servant is benefitting the private company she works for through her connections in power.

Former Olympian Lord Coe is also useful to his bosses. He is a non-executive director of data-management software company Amt-Sybex, having joined them in February 2011. The Executive team page highlights the benefits of having the former Olympian on their team stating: ‘Lord Coe’s involvement with the 2012 Olympics – one of the largest UK infrastructure projects in recent memory – provides a natural fit with the AMT-SYBEX client base in the essential industries. Prior to Mr Coe, they had William Hague as their parliamentarian link, and Steve Norris the former Conservative Mayoral candidate is their chairman.

To be ahead of the game on government policy can make the difference between success and failure for companies chasing the same clientele. Huntsworth Health, are a company in the group Huntsworth plc, which is run by Conservative Peer Lord Chadlington. Not only do they have Lord Chadlington as their CEO, but up until last year, they also had Lord Puttnam as a Director, and from 2001-03 Baroness Cumberlege was one of their non-executive directors. Francis Maude was a director of Huntsworth in 2005, following a merger with Incepta Group plc, this is clearly a company in the loop, and able to keep in touch with government thinking. Back in April 2010, Fiona Bride, the director of ‘market access’ at Huntsworth Health, chaired a meeting of pharmaceutical, and healthcare communication companies on the subject of the ‘central role of commissioning in the NHS.’ The meeting took place two months before Andrew Lansley had released the white paper (Liberating the NHS), which since developed into the much maligned Health and Social Care Act, in which commissioning is a central plank of the new legislation.

Further evidence that business sees the benefit of an MP working for them, comes in the form of Ellwood and Atfield, who are a high-end recruitment company. They have MP for Cities of London and Westminster, Mark Field, as a board Advisor. His role includes, amongst other things ‘introducing the company to opportunities.’ The company which recruits for some public affairs positions in the NHS, announced Mr Field’s appointment like this: ‘His experience, coupled with his political position, perfectly complements Ellwood & Atfield and reinforces the company’s position as the leading recruitment firm within communications and public affairs.’

Another recruitment company financially connected to a Member of the House of Lords is Odgers Berndtson. They employ Baroness Bottomley as the Chair of the Board and CEO Practice. In an interview with the financial City paper CityAM, Richard Boggis-Rolfe the chairman of head hunter company Odgers Berndtson said 'Everyone takes her call'. Another public servant recognised as exclusively benefitting their company, by their political position.

This ‘exclusive benefit’, is important, because it is something our MPs and Lords need to abide by. However, there are loopholes, which I found out when I put in a complaint to the Lord’s Standards Commissioner over Lord Chadlington’s vote on the Health and Social Care bill earlier this year.

The rules state: ‘The “exclusive benefit” principle would mean, for instance, that a Member who was paid by a pharmaceutical company would be barred from seeking to confer benefit exclusively upon that company by parliamentary means.’ This could be done in various ways including:

• tabling a motion or an amendment to legislation;
• voting in a division;
• speaking in debate;

However, given that it is nigh on impossible to prove a vote will exclusively benefit the company for whom a Lord works, it makes sense that where there is a prejudicial interest, the vote should be prevented from happening in the first place, as at local council level. Clearly the companies, who acquire a parliamentarian on their books, see their political position as exclusively benefitting them, so why do the rules not acknowledge this? Could it be that the rules have simply not caught up with the times, or is it that they been designed to allow this behaviour to take place, which is fueling the corporatisation of our political institutions?

Such benefits are plain to see as witnessed by the fact that one in four Conservative Lords had financial interests in companies involved in private healthcare, yet, were still able to vote on the Health and Social care bill, which opens up the markets to the private healthcare sector. In other words, if the rules are there to strengthen our democracy, and prevent manipulation of power, then the rules are not fit for purpose.

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