Cayman by rcbodden on Flickr
A Lords’ committee may amend guidance on lobbying by peers after Lord Blencathra was cleared of any misconduct.
The Lords commissioner for standards cleared the former Conservative chief whip of breaching conduct rules.
The commissioner and the Lords’ conduct sub-committee investigated Lord Blencathra’s role as director of the Cayman Islands’ UK office following concerns raised in a report by the Bureau and the Independent in April 2012.
The Lords’ conduct sub-committee has confirmed that the code of conduct does not specifically forbid peers acting as paid lobbyists
The Bureau highlighted concerns about the adequacy and interpretation of rules dealing with members of the House of Lords acting as paid lobbyists for companies or other governments following widespread criticisms from transparency campaigners.
Labour MP Paul Flynn, who referred the peer to the commissioner, called today for the Lords’ ‘permissive’ rules to be tightened.
He said: ‘The complex rules are open to wide interpretation and appear to be permissive in favour of members of the House of Lords. There is an overriding imperative to restore trust in legislators.’
A strong voice in Westminster
Lord Blencathra had admitted to the Bureau that his role involved lobbying the government, while the Cayman Islands’ premier said the appointment would provide the Islands with ‘a strong voice in Westminster’.
The Lords’ conduct sub-committee confirmed yesterday that the code of conduct does not specifically forbid peers acting as paid lobbyists.
Guidance to the code bans peers from ‘influencing parliament’ in return for payment or other incentive or reward.
It provides examples of what is prohibited, including ‘making use of [a member’s] position to arrange meetings with a view to any person lobbying Members of either House, ministers or officials.’
‘The complex rules are open to wide interpretation and appear to be permissive in favour of members of the House of Lords. There is an overriding imperative to restore trust in legislators.’
Labour MP Paul Flynn
The sub-committee concluded that the rules did not clearly prevent members themselves lobbying ministers or officials in return for payment.
The report states: ‘The Commissioner’s findings bring to light an aspect of the Guide to the Code of Conduct which may need clarifying.’ It will consider whether the guidance should be clarified at its next meeting.
Strengthening the rules
Rules governing MPs are much stricter. It is considered ‘inconsistent with the dignity of the House’ for an MP to ‘advocate or initiate any cause or matter on behalf of any outside body or individual in consideration of any remuneration, fee, payment, or reward or benefit in kind, direct or indirect’.
Mr Flynn said the privileges and conduct committee report on Lord Blencathra exposed ‘rules that are overdue for clarification and reform to avoid a perception that legislators are taking advantage of their office for commercial gain’.
The report included the standards commissioner’s verdict on the matter, which exonerated the peer.
‘It seems that that Lord Blencathra was appointed on the basis of his expertise and/or experience gained whilst a Member of Parliament. However, his membership of the House of Lords was not a prerequisite for appointment.’
Paul Kernaghan, Lords’ commissioner for standards
The peer had told the press conference he got the job because of his political experience as a former MP and government minister – ‘because of the knowledge I have of how Whitehall works, Westminster works’.
He also mentioned his current status as a parliamentarian.
The guide to the code of conduct states that a person who is paid by an organisation can give parliamentary advice to it providing the payment ‘is not substantially due to membership of the House, but is by reason of personal expertise or experience gained substantially outside Parliament; and that the member was, or would have been, appointed to the position without being a Member of the House.’
The commissioner found a prima facie case for a breach of this, before concluding that the peer met the overall criteria and had not acted in breach of the code.
‘On the basis of his own reported explanation, it seems that that Lord Blencathra was appointed on the basis of his expertise and/or experience gained whilst a Member of Parliament,’ he said. ‘However, his membership of the House of Lords was not a prerequisite for appointment.’
He added: ‘There is no evidence before me to suggest that Lord Blencathra has provided parliamentary advice in return for payment.’
Though the peer had approached MPs and clearly attempted to lobby the chancellor, these overtures did not breach the code either, the commissioner concluded.
After Angela Eagle MP questioned Lord Blencathra’s appointment in parliament he wrote to her defending the Cayman Islands’ status and practice as ‘one of the most important financial centres in the world’.
The peer was ‘responding to what he considered inaccurate comment made by Ms Eagle in the Commons, rather than seeking to exercise parliamentary influence’, said the commissioner.
Lord Blencathra also wrote to the chancellor ‘urging action favourable to the interests of the Cayman Islands’, which the commissioner described as ‘clearly an attempt at lobbying’. In addition, he attempted to arrange a meeting between a Cayman Islands delegation and an MP who had proposed an Early Day Motion critical of the tax haven.
But the investigation found no breach because the peer made clear in each case that he was not acting in his capacity as a member of the Lords but as director of the Cayman Islands office.