At the sum of £5000 a day, Stephen Byers’ “cab for hire” is one that few of the electorate would be able to afford. Yet the services which he claimed to have provided to various corporate clients may have serious implications for the taxpayer.
The lobbying revelations of Mr Byers, exposed by Channel 4 and The Sunday Times in a ‘Dispatches’ documentary, were added to by others from both sides of the House, including former health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, and former defence minister, Geoff Hoon. Over the past 2 months the joint investigation secretly interviewed a total of nine MPs, including four former cabinet ministers.
“It’s a great time if there’s an issue where your clients actually want to get a regulation changed or some law amended.” – Stephen Byers
“If you’ve got a client who needs a particular regulation removed, then we can often package that up [for a minister],” – Patricia Hewitt
“I’m yours” – Geoff Hoon
It is 16 years since Mohamed al-Fayed unleashed a political furore claiming that you can, “hire an MP the way you hire a London taxi”, yet despite New Labour’s claims to clean up after the sleazy legacy of Major’s government, the scandals have continued. In a telling resurrection of the Harrods proprietor’s claim, Stephen Byers has brought ministerial scandal once again into the public eye, though this time it is not “cash for questions” but instead, “cash for laws”.
The boldest of the MP’s interviewed in the documentary, Byers was candid about his willingness to use his political affiliations to bring monetary and regulatory gain for his prospective clients. The North Tyneside MP claimed as his “trump card”, to have the ear of the business secretary Lord Mandelson, using this influence on one particular occasion to assist the blocking of food labelling regulation. The regulation, proposed by Hilary Benn from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reportedly worried the corporate and legal affairs chief at Tesco, Lucy Neville-Rolfe.
Using his friendship with Mandelson, Byers chose a circuitous though effective route for his client:
“So you ring Peter Mandelson and say, ‘Peter, did you know what Hilary Benn’s about to do? … He’s going to introduce a regulation which is going to have this huge nightmare in every supermarket’.”
As a result, Byers claims, “Peter got it delayed and then got it amended.”
He boasted of further success in his alleged relationship with the ailing transport provider, National Express. With rail franchises totaling £1.4 billion, the group had entered negotiations with the government to discontinue their East Coast Mainline service, opening themselves to a potential penalty. To avoid this, they reportedly contacted Byers:
“So between you and I, I then spoke to Andrew Adonis, the transport secretary, and said, ‘Andrew, look, they’ve got a huge problem. Is there a way out of this?’ And then we, we sort of worked together — basically, the way he was comfortable doing it and you have to keep this very confidential yourself.”
“He [Adonis] said we shouldn’t be involved in the detailed negotiation between his civil servants and National Express but we can give them a broad steer. So we basically got to a situation where we agreed with Andrew he would publicly be very critical of National Express and talk about, ‘I’m going to strip you of the franchise’ and be very gung-ho.
“And we said we will live with that and we won’t challenge you in the court, provided you then let us out by December, by the end of the year, and we can keep the other two franchises for a little longer. So, and that’s what we managed to do.”
This deal, which has left the franchise in the hands of the taxpayer without charging a penalty, may have cost the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds. It will also directly affect his North Tyneside constituency, through which the line runs.
Byers considers his influential contacts to be not only amongst present ministers, but also those whose time in the House has come to a close. Tony Blair in particular, is a figure whom Byers held up as an asset to potential clients. His ability to arrange meetings with the former Prime Minister was an advantage which he made clear to his interviewers.
Tony Blair himself has not been immune to the attention attracted by business interests since leaving office. Less than a week before the present scandal involving MP’s, Blair’s deal with the South Korean firm, UI Energy Corporation, made its way into the press after he sought to keep its details private. After 20 months of secrecy, the advisory committee on business appointments chose to overrule Blair’s arguments of “market sensitivities” and disclose his involvement. Despite coinciding with the Korean firm’s strike of oil in a controversial deal with autonomous Kurdistan, both parties deny the deal was connected with Iraq. The details of the deal remain private.
Byers contacted the undercover lobbyist the day after the interview to withdraw all his statements, his denials have since been added to by representatives of both Tesco and National Express. A close source to the Chief Executive at the time at National Express has come forward to assert that Byers’ original version of events was though, “pretty accurate”.
The political actors in these recent scandals have disproportionately been drawn from the Labour party. Many have voiced their criticisms, as the party that entered office on the promise of cleaning up the politics of the previous two decades, has itself become embroiled in similar indignities. The safeguards to prevent lobbyists conflicting with democratic interests have changed little since the previous government, and in some ways have even relaxed.
There are no rules to prevent former MP’s from lobbying, and former ministers merely have to consult an advisory committee within two years of leaving office. As one critic notes of this committee:
“Its members are a representative sample of British society: three lords and three knights, all white, all male, all educated at Oxford or Cambridge, all over 70. These young firebrands never stop anyone from taking up a post in business.”
The new ministerial code of 2007 then dropped the requirement that meetings between ministers and lobbyists should even be recorded.
Not only has Labour failed to move far from the legacy of the Conservatives, but they have also failed their other promise to create a more representative democracy. As such, the public are left with a choice between two political groups which have increasingly narrowed the gap between themselves. Having lost the sense of Obama-like change which 1997 appeared to herald, the public is left with few available avenues to stem the tide of corporatism. As government enlarges, and becomes more accountable, companies quickly learn that the most effective way to achieve a competitive advantage is to seek parliamentary privilege rather than market efficiency.
The significant bias towards the Labour side of the House in these recent developments has drawn understandable criticism from the opposition, with Cameron calling for swift and thorough investigations of those concerned. Cameron, in oracle like prophecy, warned of these impending events in early February, describing it as, “the next big scandal waiting to happen.”
In his speech he asserted that his government would seek to end this pattern of “crony capitalism” and corporatism, and place greater safeguards to ensure that business relations with MPs and ministers are conducted within the framework of representative democracy. This would include, among other measures, a mandatory register of lobbyists, to ensure public awareness of the extent to which national policies are influenced by commercial forces.
This relocation of power would come in a dual form. In an echo of Blair’s promises to open politics a decade ago, Cameron has also proposed granting greater involvement to the population throughout a parliamentary term. This would involve measures to allow petitions to contribute to legislative process (100,000 signatures for debate, 1 million to table a Bill), together with a new Public Reading Stage of Bills.
Doubts as to whether Cameron will be any more able to live up to his pre-election promises than was Blair, may be heightened by the significant audiences which he has already gifted to members of the business community. Interested groups are made ‘donors’ to the party, benefitting from private audiences with the prospective Prime Minister in which they can raise their interests and concerns, presumably for his future action.
The most significant factor in our “broken society” remains the narrow gap between our two political actors and their unwillingness to divulge power. Both sides have found that promises of “change” are easy to make, it falls to the public to witness how easily they can be forgotten.
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