Painful though it is to agree with the Torygraph, the paper is absolutely right to go for Kathryn Hudson’s jugular in its editorial about her ruling on the Rifkind/Straw cases.
It seems that, rather than investigating MPs and uncovering wrongdoing, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is more interested in defending them against any investigation or criticism.
Where the Telegraph editorial questions whether she is fit to hold her post, This Writer would question whether that post should be dissolved altogether and potential wrongdoing by MPs referred to the police – preferably to be investigated by a force not directly connected to the Member in question or Parliament itself.
In her ruling, Kathryn Hudson, criticised the journalists who broke the story, commenting: “The distorted coverage of the actions and words of the Members concerned has itself been the main cause of the damage.
“If in their coverage of this story, the reporters for Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported what was said by the two Members in their interviews, and measured their words against the rules of the House, it would have been possible to avoid the damage that has been done to the lives of two individuals.”
But the Telegraph retorted with its own scathing editorial this week, saying the “sorry tale” of both ex-MPs proved “beyond doubt” that those in the Commons could not be trusted to regulate themselves over lobbying.
“Ms Hudson’s credulity towards MPs raises questions about whether she is fit to hold her post,” leader writers wrote, “yet her performance is laudable in comparison with the egregious work of the Standards Committee.
“Far from accepting any error by Sir Malcolm or Mr Straw, or any flaw in the rules they so nimbly stepped around, the committee suggests that the failing here lies with the public for not properly “understanding” the role of MPs.
It continued, saying: “That is bad enough. Worse are the committee’s words on the press. It is only because of investigative journalism that the conduct of Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw became known to the voters they were supposed to serve.
“Yet the committee’s report amounts to a warning to journalists not to carry out such investigations in future, promising to ‘consider further the role of the press in furthering…understanding and detecting wrongdoing’.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Not the only Tory suspected of wrong-doing.
Parliament’s standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, has let former MPs Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw off the hook after they were accused of corruption – but is this because they only offered to break the rules, rather than actually breaking them?
Rifkind and Straw were filmed secretly by Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary programme, speaking with an undercover reporter posing as a representative of a fake Hong Kong firm, ‘PMR’.
This representative asked Sir Malcolm if he would be able to provide advance information on HS3 – the mooted high-speed train route linking the northeast of England with the northwest.
He was recorded saying: “I could write to a minister… And I wouldn’t name who was asking… But I would say I’ve been asked to establish what your thinking is on X, Y, Z. Can you tell me what that is?”
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said on the programme: “It’s absolutely clear in the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament that they have to be open and frank in all communications and yet he was saying on that clip that he would be able to write to ministers, and he wouldn’t have to say who exactly he was representing.
“Well that would be a clear breach of the Code of Conduct and an example of, here, an experienced Member of Parliament rather using their privileged position as a public servant in trying to get access to information which would benefit individuals and this company in a way that I think the public would find totally unacceptable.”
But of course, he didn’t actually do it, because PMR was a fictitious company.
Jack Straw was filmed telling an undercover reporter how he managed to get Ukrainian law changed in order to allow another company to run its business more easily there – a perfectly legal and reasonable activity, according to Dispatches.
But then he said that EU regulations had been hampering the business so he “got in to see the relevant director general and his officials in Brussels” and got the regulations changed. He said: “The best way of doing things is under the radar.”
Sir Alistair Graham pointed out, on the programme: “That’s worrying because that’s saying ‘I can do these things without transparency’ – without the
openness and frankness that the MPs’ Code of Conduct is expecting is the normal behaviour from Members of Parliament.”
But, again, he didn’t actually do anything “under the radar” because PMR was a fictitious company.
So Ms Hudson cleared both former MPs of any wrong-doing – and gave both Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph (with whom the programme had run its investigation as a joint affair) a lashing.
“If in their coverage of this story, the reporters for Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported what was said by the two members in their interviews, and measured their words against the rules of the House, it would have been possible to avoid the damage that has been done to the lives of two individuals and those around them, and to the reputation of the House.”
This seems unreasonable as Dispatches actually filmed both these people making their claims, and measured them against the words of Sir Alistair Graham – and there was plenty of qualification in the voice-over, explaining what was permitted by the rules and what was not.
What was she really saying? That Rifkind and Straw had to carry out their suggestions before they could be accused of anything? Wouldn’t that be leaving things a little late? Fixing the barn door after the horse has bolted, to quote a well-known phrase?
Remember, this is the standards commissioner who was reluctant to examine the case of George Osborne, who paid mortgage interest on his paddock with taxpayers’ money before selling it off with a neighbouring farmhouse for around £1 million and pocketing the cash.
She refused to look into it, saying she had already investigated the case – but an examination of her report revealed no mention of the million-pound paddock at all.
Prime Minister David Cameron was said to have welcomed the commissioner’s whitewash, in a BBC report.
But Channel 4 is standing by its story and has asked broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to investigate the programme. Channel 4 says the programme raised legitimate questions and, in all honesty, this is true.
Let’s hope the result of this investigation takes Ms Hudson down a peg or two. She is long overdue for it.
Mile-wide: Mr Miliband explained his idea to bridge the gulf between the public and the Prime Minister to Andrew Marr.
Ed Miliband engaged in a particularly compelling piece of kite-flying today (July 27) – he put out the idea that the public should have their own version of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Speaking to Andrew Marr, he said such an event would “bridge the ‘mile-wide’ gulf between what people want and what they get from Prime Minister’s Questions”, which has been vilified in recent years for uncivilised displays of tribal hostility between political parties and their leaders (David Cameron being the worst offender) and nicknamed ‘Wednesday Shouty Time’.
“I think what we need is a public question time where regularly the prime minister submits himself or herself to questioning from members of the public in the Palace of Westminster on Wednesdays,” said Mr Miliband.
“At the moment there are a few inches of glass that separates the public in the gallery from the House of Commons but there is a gulf a mile wide between the kind of politics people want and what Prime Minister’s Questions offers.”
What would you ask David Cameron?
Would you demand a straight answer to the question that has dogged the Department for Work and Pensions for almost three years, now – “How many people are your ‘welfare reform’ policies responsible for killing?”
Would you ask him why his government, which came into office claiming it would be the most “transparent” administration ever, has progressively denied more and more important information to the public?
Would you ask him whether he thinks it is right for a Prime Minister to knowingly attempt to mislead the public, as he himself has done repeatedly over the privatisation of the National Health Service, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, food banks, fracking…? The list is as long as you want to make it.
What about his policies on austerity? Would you ask him why his government of millionaires insists on inflicting deprivation on the poor when the only economic policy that has worked involved investment in the system, rather than taking money away?
His government’s part-privatisation of the Royal Mail was a total cack-handed disaster that has cost the nation £1 billion and put our mail in the hands of hedge funds. Would you ask him why he is so doggedly determined to stick to privatisation policies that push up prices and diminish quality of service. Isn’t it time some of these private companies were re-nationalised – the energy firms being prime examples?
Would you want to know why his government has passed so many laws to restrict our freedoms – of speech, of association, of access to justice – and why it intends to pass more, ending the government’s acknowledgement that we have internationally-agreed human rights and restricting us to a ‘Bill of Rights’ dictated by his government, and tying us to restrictive lowest-common-denominator employment conditions laid down according to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a grubby little deal that the EU and USA were trying to sign in secret until the whistle was blown on it?
The study shows that more than £1.6 billion a year will be removed from the Scottish economy, with the biggest losses based in changes to incapacity benefits. The Scottish average loss, per adult of working age, is £460 per year (compared with a British average of £470) but the hardest hit area was impoverished Glasgow Carlton, where adults lost an average of £880 per year.
In affluent St Andrews, the average hit was just £180 per year.
Of course, the cumulative effect will hit the poorest communities much harder – with an average of £460 being taken out of these communities it is not only households that will struggle to make ends meet; as families make cutbacks, local shops and businesses will lose revenue and viability. If they close, then residents will have to travel further for groceries and to find work, meaning extra travel costs will remove even more much-needed cash from their budget.
For a nationwide picture, the EHRC commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the consultancy Landman Economics to develop a way of assessing the cumulative impact of “welfare reform”.
The report will be published in the summer, but Landman Economics has already told Disability News Service that the work was “not actually that difficult”.
Why, then have Mark Hoban, Esther McVey and Mike Penning, the current minister for the disabled, all claimed that a cumulative assessment is impossible?
Some might say they have a vested interest in keeping the public ignorant of the true devastation being wreaked on Britain’s most vulnerable people by Coalition austerity policies that will ultimately harm everybody except the very rich.
Here’s an article from US website Global Comment on what America clearly understood to be the privatisation of the National Health Service in England. It was published in March 2012, about a month after the Health and Social Care Act was passed – and seems much more perceptive in its evaluation than – for example – the BBC!
The article states: “The level of health care privatization being implemented by the British government via the Health and Social Care Bill (and experts agree it amounts to privatization and will lead to more, even as ministers known to love the private sector deny it) is seen by many as essentially the end of the National Health Service (NHS). The editor of the respected medical journal The Lancet has described the impact of this “coming disaster” very bluntly: ‘People will die thanks to the government’s decision to focus on competition rather than quality in healthcare.'”
It continues: “A hatchet is being taken to the NHS without a mandate, which explains the lack of transparency and authoritarianism of the process. The government doesn’t want a risk assessment for their “reforms” published, and meanwhile protests that have been held with the aim of quite literally conserving a beloved British institution, a pillar of the welfare state, have been policed as if they were radical demonstrations aiming to smash the state.
“The Conservatives very explicitly lied about their intentions: a famous and frequently parodied campaign poster featured Tory leader and now Prime Minister David Cameron promising that he wouldn’t cut the NHS.”
Moving on to other policies, it states: “In place of free healthcare for UK citizens, the government is providing free labor for corporations: “Jobseekers have been made to do compulsory unpaid work for up to four weeks after refusing to take part in the voluntary work experience scheme,” reports The Guardian.
The government has a duty to make some kind of response if an e-petition on its website passes 10,000 signatures. My own e-petition – ‘Ban MPs from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest’ – passed that point several weeks ago, but it is only now – right before Christmas, when people have many other matters on their minds – that it has been graced with a response.
And what a weak response it is!
The petition calls on the government to legislate against MPs speaking or voting in debates on matters which could lead to them, companies connected with them or donors to their political party gaining money.
The response runs as follows: “The participation of Members of Parliament in debates and votes are a matter for the rules of each House rather than for legislation.” How interesting. Every other level of government has legislation covering this – look at the Local Government Act 1972. What makes Parliament so special?
“The rules are based upon the principle of transparency: the registration and the declaration of any financial interests. In the House of Commons, the Code of Conduct requires Members to fulfil the requirements of the House relating to the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to be open in drawing attention to any financial interest in proceedings of the House. The application of these rules are explained in The Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.” This raises the question: Why were these rules not applied so that, for example, Andrew Lansley could not speak on his own Health and Social Care Bill because he had received £21,000 of support from the private health company Care UK? Clearly he was in breach of the rules, and it is just as clear that no action was taken. This demonstrates the need for robust enforcement – with a criminal penalty for transgressors.
“Similar rules apply in the House of Lords. These make clear that it is for Peers themselves to declare a financial interest if a reasonable person might think that their actions could be influenced by a relevant interest.
“In both Houses the respective Registers of Interests are publically available and updated regularly.”How often are they checked for accuracy?
Now we come to the meat: “It would not be practicable to prevent Members speaking or voting in debates on legislation which could financially benefit any commercial operation in which they have a financial interest or which has made donations to themselves of their party. A significant number of legislative provisions in any year may have beneficial financial implications for all or most commercial operations. The requirement proposed would impose a duty on all Members to ascertain whether a general legislative provision might be of financial benefit to particular operations in which they had an interest. There are questions as to how such a complex requirement could be policed effectively and what sanctions would apply.”
This is bunkum. There is a huge difference between legislation that is designed to help all businesses and that which is designed to improve the profitability of a particular sector – such as the healthcare sector inhabited by Care UK, in the case of Mr Lansley that I have already mentioned.
Is a particular commercial sector, or an individual company, likely to benefit from legislation? If so, have any MPs taken money from that company, or one within that sector? Have such firms contributed to the funds of the party bringing that legislation forward? If the second condition is met, then that Member should not be allowed to speak; if the third condition is met, then this is corrupt legislation and should not be allowed before Parliament. It really is that simple. How many MPs or Peers have an interest in fracking?
In fact, considering their enormous salaries, why are MPs allowed to have any other financial interests at all?
“The rules of the House of Commons already prohibit paid advocacy, so Members cannot advocate measures which are for the exclusive benefit of a body from which they receive a financial benefit.”Then why was Lansley allowed to bring forward a bill that promised to benefit Care UK?
“In other cases, where legislation or debate affects a body from which a Member receives a financial benefit, that interest must be properly registered and declared.”How often is that checked?
“In relation to political donations and election expenditure, the Government is committed to further improving transparency and accountability, so as to prevent a situation where opaque and unaccountable groups spend large sums of money attempting to influence the political system. Measures to achieve this objective are included in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill which is currently before the Parliament.” This is a Bill that has been pilloried as an example of the poorest legislation ever put before a British legislative body – it is not a good example to use in defence of a corrupt system.
That is the government’s point of view – for all that it is worth. I think we owe it to the people of the UK to respond – so let us lay this open to anybody who has an opinion.
Do you know of an instance in which the rules – as laid out in the government response published here – have been broken? Please get in touch and tell us what you know – making sure you provide as much evidence as possible. This site is not in the business of libelling honest politicians – we only like to expose those who are crooked.
Please get in touch.
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An end to the corporate backhander? [Picture: This Is Money}
A Labour government would make private companies who provide services at the taxpayers’ expense obey public sector transparency rules, it has been revealed.
The change means firms and charities that sell services to the state – for example, all the private companies now working in the NHS – would lose their right to commercial confidentiality.
The Freedom of Information Act would be extended to cover them and they would have to reveal their commercial secrets if a FoI request required them to do so.
If enacted, this is likely to be more effective in creating transparency of lobbying than the Parliamentary Bill of the same name that is currently working its way through Westminster.
The policy was revealed in a Sunday Times article which is paywall protected. Labour has yet to release an announcement on its website.
The article quotes shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who said: “More and more of our public services are being delivered by private companies and charities, out of reach of freedom of information. We must demand the same openness from them as we expect from government. It’s not on to let these organisations hide behind a veil of secrecy.”
The new policy comes after a 10-minute rule motion by Labour’s Grahame Morris began its journey through Parliament earlier this month. Such motions rarely get very far because the government of the day usually opposes them in the later stages and there is often too little time to complete the debate.
But these bills stimulate publicity for their cause, and it seems clear that the Labour leadership has taken this particular cause on board.
So it should – concerns are high that unfair advantages are being handed to, for example, the private healthcare companies, who are then able to hide the facts behind the veil of commercial confidentiality. Why should they be allowed to do this when they are providing a public service, funded by the citizens of the UK?
Existing NHS operators do not have the advantage of commercial confidentiality and must provide details of the way they operate if a FoI request is submitted to them. This makes them vulnerable during the bidding process for NHS contracts, as private operators can ask about the current providers’ operations and then undercut them to get the work.
Then there’s the so-called “revolving doors” practice, in which government advisors move to lucrative contracts in the private sector, often after providing advice that changes government policy in favour of their new employer. Mr Morris’s motion noted that “at least five former advisors to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are now working for lobbying firms with private healthcare clients”.
This is a corrupt practice – the firms gain an unfair advantage because they have, if you like, a spy in government manipulating affairs to their advantage. Nothing is done about this at the moment, nor will the Labour proposal change that situation – but we will all be able to see who the spies are.
It would probably be advisable for a future Labour government to put powers in place to reverse any change in the law due to corrupt advice intended to engineer a commercial advantage to a private company. Restricting the movement of government employees to other jobs would be problematic, but if it is known that any changes they effect will be reversed after such a move, then the exercise would become pointless.
Companies would not be able to pay a person to influence the government while they remained in the taxpayers’ employ, as this would be a clear case of bribery and corruption.
A previous VP article on this subject mentioned the idea of the level playing field – and Labour is to be praised for producing policies intended to restore that principle to government in the face of Conservative and Liberal Democrat efforts to skew the field in favour of their corporate chums.
And the corporates themselves? Well, their bosses are likely to be furious and it’s possible that all kinds of threats will come in Labour’s direction.
That’s fine. A Labour government can take any such complaint in stride by launching a programme to revise government tax strategy with regard to corporates, and bring any complaining company to the top of the list.
Open and transparent: Grahame Morris, who called for a ‘level playing field’ for both private companies and public organisations when bidding for government contracts.
Did you know that £1 in every £3 spent by the government goes to an independent or private-sector service provider?
If you also recall government ministers bemoaning the fact that £1 in every £4 spent by the government was borrowed, as they said very often during the first year or so of the Coalition, and you bear in mind the fact that all private companies must make a profit, you’ll come to a fairly damning conclusion.
Did you know, also, that private companies – while free to hide behind commercial confidentiality regarding the conditions under which billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are awarded to them in government contracts – may use Freedom of Information requests to gain detailed information about public sector organisations and then use that knowledge to undercut or outbid those bodies when government contracts are tendered or put up for renewal?
FoI regulations give private providers an unfair competitive advantage when bidding for contracts, due to unequal disclosure requirements.
Both of these were made clear in Grahame Morris’s short speech in support of his 10-minute rule motion to bring in a Bill amending the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply to private healthcare companies, and for connected purposes.
He even pointed out that we are living in a society where freedom of information is routinely censored – stating that he attended a demonstration against NHS privatisation in Manchester at the start of the Conservative Party conference there, “but which was barely reported by our public sector broadcaster”.
He said the government should be chastened by recent events. “For example, the tagging scandal — involving Serco and G4S and uncovered by the Serious Fraud Office — showed that these companies had defrauded the taxpayer of more than £50 million.
“Perhaps we need a hard-hitting advertising campaign, with advertising hoardings on vans driven around the City of London, warning off corporate fraudsters from bidding for public contracts?
“The danger for our NHS is that we are inviting convicted fraudsters into our health system.”
He said HCA, the world’s biggest private healthcare company, recently won the contract to provide cancer treatment for NHS brain tumour patients, “stopping patients receiving world-class treatment at London’s University College Hospital”.
Mr Morris continued: “The Competition Commission has already caught HCA overcharging private patients in the United Kingdom. In the United States, HCA has had to pay fines and costs in excess of $2 billion for systematically defrauding federal healthcare programmes.
“The public are right to be concerned about these providers coming into the NHS. If that is to happen, it is essential that their operations and their contracts with the NHS should be open, transparent and subject to public scrutiny.”
Introducing his Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill, he said its purpose was to strengthen FoI legislation and introduce vital safeguards, so members of the public can see how their money is being spent.
It seems he may even have read Vox Political‘s earlier article on his motion, as he said: “I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support fair competition, a level playing field and the duty of equal disclosure throughout the bidding process for NHS services.
“The public have a right to know the record of public and private providers before contracts are awarded. Those safeguards can work only if the Information Commissioner has the same rights to seek information and carry out investigations, and to make all providers of public services comply with freedom of information legislation.
“I understand that the Information Commissioner expressed concern to the Justice Select Committee that accountability would be undermined if FOI did not apply to private providers of public services.”
He said: “Freedom of information is one of the Labour Government’s greatest achievements, ensuring transparency and accountability in modern government and allowing the public access to information on what is being done in their name and how their money is being spent.
“In recent years, we have witnessed an acceleration in the number of public services being outsourced, and today roughly £1 in every £3 that the Government spend goes to independent or private sector providers.
“Owing to the Government’s policy of opening up public services to the private and voluntary sectors, billions of pounds of NHS contracts are now being made available to the private sector, following the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
“Unfortunately, while more and more taxpayer money is being handed to the private sector, especially in the NHS, FOI responsibilities are not following the public pound.
“There is a big issue here about transparency, because the public should know what is happening in their name, as was brought home to me recently in a demonstration against NHS privatisation in Manchester that I attended, along with more than 50,000 other people, but which was barely reported on by our public sector broadcaster.
“Private health care companies should not be permitted to hide behind a cloak of commercial confidentiality. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being awarded to private sector companies under barely transparent contracts.
“Meanwhile, private companies are free to benefit by gaining detailed knowledge of public sector bodies through their use and submission of FOI requests. The same information is then used by the private sector to undercut or outbid the very same public sector bodies when contracts are tendered or put up for renewal.”
Although no objection was raised to the Bill going forward, it seems the Coalition has performed an about-face on the issue. Mr Morris said: “I understand that in opposition the Prime Minister was convinced about this matter, having previously promised to increase the range of publicly funded bodies subject to scrutiny using section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act.
“The coalition agreement also promised to extend the scope of the Act to provide greater transparency, but unfortunately it would appear that nothing is being done to address the democratic deficit caused by the outsourcing of public services.”
Sadly, it seems likely that this Bill won’t get very far, for reasons this blog has already mentioned – the Government usually opposes Private Member’s Bills in the later stages and, given their low priority in the schedule, there is often insufficient time for the debate to be completed.
But this may not matter, as the information already provided by Mr Morris makes fascinating reading that is damning for the government.
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