23 Feb 2015

Duckhouse to doghouse: a short history of MPs’ scandals

The claim is that Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were happy to use their influence for personal gain. But this would not be the first time that MPs have traded their status in return for money.

Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Getty Images)

Labour’s Jack Straw and Conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind, two former foreign secretaries, have been suspended from their parties after being filmed in an undercover investigation.

In tonight’s edition of Dispatches, Mr Straw is reported to describe how he operated “under the radar” to secure a change in EU rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year. Sir Malcolm is said to claim his status meant he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world.

The MPs have referred themselves to parliament’s standards watchdog. Both men say they have not broken any rules after appearing to offer their services to a private company.

But the allegations in the Channel 4 programme are the latest in a series of rows over the past two decades, in which MPs appear to have used their status and influence to secure personal gain.

Martin Bell and Neil Hamilton (Getty Images)

1994: cash for questions

In October 1994 the Guardian reported that Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith had received £2,000 each from lobbyist Ian Greer on behalf of Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed, in return for asking questions in the Commons.

Tim Smith resigned immediately, admitting he had received payments from al-Fayed, but Hamilton and Greer issued libel writs against the Guardian – which they withdrew two years later.

Standing on an anti-corruption ticket in the 1997 general election, the white-suited former BBC journalist Martin Bell (above left) defeated Hamilton (above right) in the Hatton constituency he had held since 1983. George Osborne was subsequently selected to be the new Conservative candidate at the 2003 election.

2009: cash for influence

In January 2009 the Sunday Times reported that four Labour life peers had told undercover reporters – masquerading as lobbyists for an exemption from business rates – that they could use their political influence to change the law.

A Lords committee found that Lords Truscott and Taylor, had broken parliamentary rules prohibiting peers from influencing the law for financial gain. They were suspended from parliament for six months.

Duck house (Getty Images)

2009: MPs’ expenses

From May 2009 the Daily Telegraph published details of expenses claims by MPs over a number of years. The documents revealed widespread abuse of a system which allowed members of parliament to claim for such things as second homes.

The £1,645 claim by Conservative MP Sir Peter Viggers for a “duck house” pond feature came to epitomise the misuse by many MPs of the expenses system.

Several Labour MPs left the government in the wake of the scandal, including the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith, and Hazel Blears, the communities secretary. On the Conservative side, former minister Douglas Hogg announced he would not be seeking re-election after claiming money to clear his moat.

Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon (Getty Images)

2010: cash for influence

In March 2010 the Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed the results of a sting mounted against several Labour and Conservative MPs, who were secretly recorded apparently offering to try to influence government policy in return for cash.

One recording showed Former Labour transport secretary Stephen Byers (above left) describing himself as “sort of like a cab for hire” and saying he would work for up to £5,000 a day. Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon (above right) said he was interested in “translating my knowledge and contacts […] into something that, bluntly, makes money”.

In December 2010 Hoon and Byers, who had stood down as MPs at the May 2010 election, were banned from parliament, respectively for five and two years.

2013: Patrick Mercer

In April 2013 Conservative MP Patrick Mercer announced he was resigning his seat after being suspended by the House of Commons for six months.

It followed an investigation by the Daily Telegraph and Panorama in which they claimed he had broken lobbying rules by tabling Commons questions and offering a Westminster security pass, after signing a deal with a lobbying firm that paid him 34,000 for seeking Fiji’s readmission to the Commonwealth.