Standards in the House of Commons
Paul Flynn: The word “odd”—you have suggested that things look a little odd to the public. They don’t; they look corrupt to the public.
When the person who chaired the House of Lords standards committee is revealed to be cavorting with prostitutes while using cocaine, people would say that his standards of what is acceptable in behaviour were not the standards of the general public.
When the chairman of the Standards Committee here is found to be taking money to hire rooms in the place for a commercial body, giving the money to charity, and he is not found guilty of anything, the public are a little surprised.
People like Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw were found entirely not guilty by a Committee here but were judged to be very guilty indeed by an independent body, Ofcom, who investigated it.
When Tim Yeo was found taking very large sums of money from a commercial body he was, again, found not guilty in the House of Commons, but when he took the matter to a court outside he was laughed at by the judge and found extremely guilty.
Last week someone was given two days’ suspension from the House for committing an identical offence to that committed by Ernie Ross some years ago who was given 10 days’ suspension. A 10-day suspension here would have consequences.
We have become excessively permissive in the House with our own standards, isn’t this right? The public are rightly contemptuous of politicians and the view of politicians is getting worse continually. The evidence is they are permissive. This is not “odd”. What do you mean, “odd”? They think we are a bunch of crooks.
Revolving Door and ACoBA
Paul Flynn: You talk about consistency. We do not want consistency of futility, which is what we have now. ACoBA is an entirely futile body. It allows egregious cases likes Ed Davey through, a man who fixed a deal that is going to cost taxpayers excessive amounts of money. We could not understand it at the time; I raised this when it was decided. The deal with EDF is almost criminal. It is fraudulent to the future bill payers of electricity for the next 50 years. Strangely enough, when he leaves office he becomes a lobbyist for EDF and ACoBA smile and say, “Well, that seems to be okay.”
That is just taking that one case. There are hundreds of them, where people are lining their pockets, presumably when they are in office, preparing for their retirement riches or when they lose office. They are preparing the ground to go into a job where they can use their insider knowledge in a way that would be criminal in any other situation.
Sheila Drew Smith: It comes back to the point I made about the objectives of ACoBA, or indeed any new body, and how it practically arranges to increase public trust in the organisation. That is a challenge that everybody faces.
Paul Flynn: It has no powers. If people do lobby, if people put two fingers up to them, they can do nothing. If people do not report or report late, they express their displeasure. People are consoled by the fact if they have £100,000 in their back pocket, they can stand the displeasure of the Committee. We have described it as something that is toothless. It is not a watchdog; it is a pussycat without teeth or claws. If we want to be consistent, we start at a very low level, consistent in being totally ineffective, the reputation of politics goes down and we end up with obscenities like Trump in America and others here.
Futility of ACoBA
Paul Flynn: It is an interesting job for which you are paid for doing nothing, or having no beneficial effect. Could you answer one last question? We have this pantomime of sending out a letter expressing displeasure when somebody treats the committee with contempt and ignores them. Would it not be a simple matter to ban Ministers, civil servants, senior civil servants, admirals, from working in areas of which they decide contracts within their period of office? Give them a ban in those areas for five years, two years, whatever it might be, when their contacts cool down, their relationships begin to fade a bit. Would that not be entirely sensible to do, rather than go through this ridiculous and futile process of ACoBA pretending to exercise powers that they do not have and be entirely ineffective as a body?
Sheila Drew Smith: I think there are various time limits you could put on people, appropriate lengths of time. I think you have to balance any ban, whether it be a lifetime ban as has been suggested, with restraint of trade. I think it is a basic human right to continue to work, to deploy skills. It pushes you back to the need to consider things on a case-by case basis, that you can have a basic code that may be too stringent and inappropriate.
Paul Flynn: I think that is a no. I am trying to get that from these words that you are producing. If I give you another brief example. The Sunday Times claimed that there were 3,500—an amazing total—of former people, politicians, mostly Ministers, generals, top civil servants, working in the defence industry. There was a famous statement that they did with General Kiszely who was suggesting that standing at the cenotaph, waiting for the Queen to arrive, was a good place to fix a few deals with Japanese companies, if you remember. He was chair of the British Legion at the time. The point is this: where do we go? What can we do to make sure that those 3,500 people do something worthwhile? It was pointed out to us very vividly last week: would it be justified if those industries were efficient? They are the least efficient of any industry. There is nothing like the defence industry. Every time it has vast overruns in costs, huge delays, in 100% of what they do.
Paul Flynn: Did you not notice that Sir Ed Davey was all over our televisions when the go-ahead for Hinkley Point was announced praising the merits of nuclear power and the good value of the contract? Isn’t that what we call lobbying?
Baroness Browning: It is not lobbying. I would not—
Paul Flynn: Sir Ed Davey, Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes were enthusiastically anti-nuclear before the coalition was formed and they went through this mind-meld or this metamorphosis where they suddenly became excessively pro-nuclear. This Committee is fed up with hearing me talk about the EDMs and the arguments about the insanity of the deal that was struck with EDF, which was going to buy electricity for three times the going rate.
Baroness Browning: Mr Flynn, you are going way beyond my remit now.
Paul Flynn: We know that, but isn’t it tempting to believe that this contract that he struck with EDF, which was atrocious value for taxpayers and future bill payers, was influenced by his prospects of a job with EDF when he lost his seat? Isn’t that a likely possibility?
Baroness Browning: He does not work for EDF.
Paul Flynn: He works for a company that is employed by EDF. It is a lobbying company that serves EDF and do the bidding of EDF.
Baroness Browning: I know who they are because we have looked at that, yes.
Paul Flynn: Anyway, didn’t it strike you that of all these 360 saintly mandarins that you interviewed none of them was possibly going to do anything that was improper? Isn’t it likely that Sir Ed Davey did have that possibility when he agreed this crazy contract with EDF that he was going to get something out of it himself? It was a retirement job, which he has got.
Paul Flynn: The substance of the question is: you see on the declaration of interest that some former Minister has taken out a job with a company that he regulated as a Minister; what do you do?
Baroness Browning: First of all, we obviously get information back from the permanent secretary about their view, because they have the detail of how involved they were and what they do. We look at that, and we investigate some of the points in there if we want to go back for further information.
Paul Flynn: What do you do then?
Baroness Browning: Then we come to a decision collectively in the eight members of the committee about what we want to do. We take advice, and we look at the options open to us, for example, as in the Ed Davey case.
Paul Flynn: Then what do you do? Sorry, I have a couple of questions I want to ask you. You write a letter.
Baroness Browning: When we have decided what we think the advice is, we write a letter to them, and when they receive that letter they sometimes come back to us and say, “We don’t like your letter.”
Paul Flynn: All right. You write a letter telling them to do what?
Baroness Browning: Telling them what our advice is to them if they were to proceed.
Paul Flynn: If the person bins the letter and takes no notice of your advice, what do you do then?
Baroness Browning: I am not aware that they have done that. We wait for them to accept the terms in the letter, and when they do that, we send them a form that says, “Send this form back when you have started this job.” We do not then put their details on the website until we know they have taken up the job.
Paul Flynn: Okay, the person decides to ignore your advice, and carry on, and use his insider knowledge for the company. What do you do?
Baroness Browning: I have no powers of investigation.
Paul Flynn: Exactly. Thank you. What can you do about Ed Davey if he appears on television shamelessly lobbying for a customer of the company he works for? What do you do then?
Baroness Browning: I suppose if it became so apparent that you saw it on television and thought it was a breach of the advice, I would have to go back to the permanent secretary in that Department.
Paul Flynn: Then what?
Baroness Browning: The permanent secretary would contact him, but I doubt the permanent secretary has—
Paul Flynn: What would the permanent secretary do?
Baroness Browning: I would suspect he would contact him, but his powers to say, “Off with his head,” are probably pretty zilch.
Paul Flynn: Isn’t it true that the ultimate power you have is to send a letter to people who have ignored you altogether and have not bothered applying, or come back retrospectively? The summit of your powers is to send a letter to them expressing your displeasure?
Baroness Browning: We are an advisory committee; we are not a regulatory committee. I really can’t repeat that enough: we are an advisory committee.
Paul Flynn: Is there any point in your organisation as it stands? You tell someone not to lobby for two years, but how do you know they have not lobbied? If they have lobbied, what do you do about it?
Baroness Browning: I do not know. I do not know because we have no remit to investigate and to bring people to book.
Paul Flynn: It is a futile organisation and it is not in a position to achieve anything.