We as parliamentarians are incapable of policing our own affairs. This has been demonstrated time and again with harmful headlines exposing sex, drugs, fraud and expenses scandals with concerning frequency.
In July 2012 I made a complaint to the Standards Commissioner about Lord Blencathra’s lucrative contract with the Cayman Islands. Following his appointment as Director of the Cayman Islands UK, in a blatant promotion of his services for hire, Lord Blencathra touted his lobbying skills at a press conference,
“I've been appointed because I have 27 years experience as a Member of Parliament, ten to twelve years experience in a British Government. I'm still a Parliamentarian in a different colour of the corridor in Westminster.
And the Government feels that because of the knowledge I have of how Whitehall works, Westminster works, that I can be a good representative to feed in to the correct authorities in the Government the views of the Cayman Islands and help defend our interests.
My role is to make sure that advice in to Government ministers, to the Civil Service, the Governor does it as his level, I do it at mine on behalf of the Cayman Islands Government.”
His activities included lobbying George Osborne to lower air passenger transport taxes on the Caymans and facilitating an all-expenses-paid trip to the Caymans for three senior MPs. Following my complaint, the Lords Standards Commissioner decided to hold an investigation to decide if this was in breach of the Code of Conduct.
Lord Blencathra was found not to have breached the Code of Conduct. In his £12,000 a month role, he had altruistically not lobbied Parliament - admitting freely to only lobbying Ministers, which was permissible at the time. It was also decided that despite being hired for his access to legislators, he had not lobbied in his capacity as a peer. As such no action was taken.
In 2014 The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an employment contract between The Cayman Islands and Lord Blencathra, exposing clauses expressly setting out how he would work for the tax haven. This contract was not made known to the Privileges and Standards Committee in 2012, and its unexplained existence prompted a new investigation.
Blencathra agreed to “Promoting the Cayman Islands’ interests in the UK and Europe by liaising with and making representations to UK ministers, the FCO, members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords.”
Conveniently the peer’s defence has evolved periodically to suit the accusations laid against him. Initially he denied having a lobbying aspect to his role, before omitting any awareness of an employment contract when under investigation. Eventually he settled on having not had any intention of fulfilling the lobbying clauses within the contract he now remembers signing.
The investigators would not take a hard line against one of their own. The perception of Parliamentarians for hire was legitimised by the Lord’s Standards Commissioner who refused to take a tough stance on the matter. It was accepted that although he received £12,000 a month for services that he was contractually obliged to perform, Lord Blencathra did not intend to carry out those services which would have breached the Lords Code of Conduct. As penance, an apology in front of the House of Lords would suffice.
It is perhaps not surprising that Lord Sewel, from within a glass house, had a chief role in overseeing the conduct of peers. When not busy dragging Parliament into further disrepute with his extracurricular activities, he held the position of Chairman of the Privileges and Conduct committee which considered Lord Blenncathra’s case.