Sunday 15 December 2013

Petition Forces Answer From Government on Prejudicial Vote Flaw

A current petition on the No10 website has highlighted a flaw in the rules that allows MPs and Lords to vote and debate on legislation that may gain revenue for a company that either they own, which employs them or donates to their office.

If you are a local councillor such interests would debar you from a vote and debate at the discretion of the chamber. Now that the petition has reached over 10,000, the government has been forced to respond, so how do they justify such a difference?

The petition made several demands.

i. No member of Parliament may speak or vote in a debate on legislation which could financially benefit any commercial operation in which they have a financial interest;


ii. No member of Parliament may speak or vote in a debate on legislation which could financially benefit any commercial operation which has made - or currently makes - donations to themselves personally or their political party.

In response the government stated that it would “not be practical” to prevent Members speaking or voting on legislation which could “financially benefit any commercial operation in which they have a financial interest” or which has made “donations to themselves of (or) their party”. The reason? Because a “significant number of legislative provisions in any year may have beneficial financial implications for all or most commercial operations.”

In terms of donations to the party, as a whole, then this is probably correct. For example, if a person connected to a private health company gave money to a political party, it may make a member of the public mistrust the party, especially if they then go on to win contracts but it is unreasonable to think that this would be enough to debar the entire party from voting on any legislation on legislation that may have an affect on private health and would bring Parliament to a halt.

However, the government claims that it would “not be practical” to prevent a MP from voting with a financial interest is absurd and arrogant. The government says there are many “questions” as to how such a “complex requirement” could be “policed effectively”?

Well, they need look no further than the rules that apply to councillors at a local level. Any prejudicial interest held by a councillor would debar them from a vote and indeed a debate depending on the acceptance of the Chamber.

This current situation suggests that MPs and Lords are somehow more able to separate their public duty from their outside interest, which is patently absurd. Given the level of commercial interests that exist in parliament, the need to change the rules to match those at local level is obvious.

Take Baroness Cumberlege, the Conservative Peer and former Health Secretary. She owns a company that she moved into a position to gain revenue from the new Commissioning Groups, a key component of the Health bill on which she voted. The legislation goes through thanks in part to her vote and she ends up winning small contracts for providing courses to some of the new Commissioning Groups. It’s okay though, because she put her business interest in the Register.

Over 200 parliamentarians had recent or present financial interests to companies or individuals involved in healthcare at the time of the Health and Social Care bill. They were all able to vote, despite these interests. Further research has confirmed that some of these companies attached to Lords either by employment or donations, have gone on to gain contracts in the new NHS.

The fact of the matter is that in their current form, the rules allow any MP or Lord to vote on legislation that may open revenue opportunities for the companies that employ them or donate to them. The rules are different for local councillors who manage to police such matters adequately.

Until MPs and Lords are debarred from a vote when they have a prejudicial interest, then every time they place their vote it will be difficult to know whether their action was in the interest of the public or the corporation that employs them.

The government will always resist further scrutiny, just as they did when a proposal was made for a Register of Interests back in 1974. I leave you with this:

“Should the public know of our outside interests? My answer strictly speaking, is ‘No’. Why should they? There is no opportunity for corruption and precious little opportunity for influence…We are not crooks and we want it to be seen that we are not crooks. We are in the public eye and we hold jobs, which in the eyes of the public are very important. Conservative MP for Lowestoft, James Prior 22nd May, 1974

The full petition can be seen here where you can also sign.

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