Which of these is sleazy?

I would like your thoughts on what is reasonable and unreasonable conduct for an MP. In a series of Moral mazes I am going to pose some everyday dilemmas that could face an MP. I do not have any particular MP in mind for any particular scenario, but these are all possible scenarios that could arise.

The first series of issues arise with the MP’s ability to offer refreshments to guests in the pleasant Commons dining rooms looking out over the Thames in the historic Palace of Westminster. Which(if any) of the following should be a) permitted b) against the Commons rules c) against the Criminal Law?

1. The MP decides it is too dangerous to invite friends and relatives, preferring to be sure by not using the facility.
2. The MP invites a rich acquaintance from the constituency to dinner. They do not discuss party funding, the guest turns out not to be a donor, and the MP pays for the meal himself.
3. As 2 above, but the guest says at the end of the meal he has enjoyed it so much as he earns so much more than the MP he will pay the bill. The MP allows him to do so.
4. As 2 above, but two weeks after the dinner the guest is approached independently by the MP’s party, and willingly gives a donation to the party. The MP is unaware this has happened.
5. The MP invites a rich acquaintance from the constituency to dinner and does mention during the course of the dinner the poor state of his party’s finances.
The guest makes an independent donation without telling the MP after the dinner.
6. The MP invites a rich guest to dinner who has already given to his party, to say thank you to him.
7. The MP invites a rich person to dinner, tells him of the poor state of party finances during the course of the meal, and follows up 2 weeks later to ask for a donation.
8. The MP’s party organisation offers a meal with the MP at the Commons as a raffle prize in an expensive raffle to raise money at a fund raising event. The MP hosts the dinner for the prize winner.
9. The MP offers a meal for two at the House with him as host to a local charity. They sell the offer as a prize to raise money.
10. The MP allows his family to come to dinner at the Commons to celebrate a private family event, and pays the bill himself.
11. The MP allows members of his family to come to an event at the Commons, and allows another family member to pay the bill and act as the effective host.
12. The MP acts as a host for a company from his constituency who want to lay on a dinner for themselves and leading customers in the Commons. The company pays the bill. The MP attends as official host and receives a free dinner for his trouble.
13. The MP acts as host for a private sector body or lobby group to hold a drinks reception in the Commons to put their point of view to other MPs and Ministers.
14. The MP acts as host to a public sector quango to present its case to MPs over a meal in the Commons.

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27 Comments

  1. anoneumouse
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    It is quite simple, no form of any entertainment in the house of commons, It is a place of work. Let us see more work and less play. Jollies and entertainment should occur outside the place of work.

    Who pays wins

  2. Robert
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    John , interesting. If I was your postion I would not do 3, 7, 11 and 12. It is not that difficult . Anyway here is the full response you wanted:
    1) a
    2) a
    3) b
    4) a – the MP is unaware
    5) a
    6) a
    7) b
    8) b
    9) a
    10) a
    11) b
    12) b
    13) a
    14) a

  3. Geoff
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    1. Friends and relatives: legal but unwise with the current witchhunt.

    2. Rich local non-donor: ditto – legal but would lead to bad headlines and no subsequent red-top apology would get the same publicity as the initial allegation.

    3. Rich local non-donor who pays: no different to (2) and only 3 changed words in the same newspaper article. Voters wouldn't see a difference. Bad publicity if something the MP didn't know later came out.

    4. Rich local subsequent donor: Legal but very few would think it wasn't planned and that the MP wasn't really aware. Publicity swamp.

    5. Rich local prompted subsequent donor: Legal but exactly as (4)

    6. Dinner to past donor: Perfectly fine. Any legal problem with this (because how do you define 'rich') might stop my local MP buying me a pint after I paid my yearly subs.

    7. Chasing up potential rich donor after dinner: Legal and also he should have chased him up before the dinner as well. The alternative is state funded parties.

    8. Overpriced Raffled MP dinner at the Commons: I've done a few myself. Great fun to go somewhere interesting. Nothing dodgy there. Hopefully you get what you pay for and get a good dinner. Ever entered the same raffles for Lords or Ascot?

    9. Meal for a local charity: The charity would have to be non-partisan to even entertain the offer so seems like a great idea to help the local Cats Home, Round Table, Lodge etc etc.

    10. MP and family at HoC: Pays the bill himself? Why not?

    11. MP and family at HoC: You'd have to question the motivation of someone else paying the bill. A third cousin twice removed who has an arms sales business is 'family'? On balance, no but under HoC/HoL rules I would think this should be restricted and controlled.

    12. MP and local company: If the local company might generate local sales or local jobs then the MP should host the meeting *but pay his own way to ensure that all appears in order*. The MP is helping his constituents but with not being financially obligated.

    13. MP and lobby group: You don't mention any payments. If I was a pro-hunting MP and invited foxhunters and supporting / neutral / undecided MPs to turn up for example and I paid for the drinks then I'm all for that sort of occasion. If Brown's pet Sith Institute carries on getting cheap meeting rooms in Downing Street whilst still pretending to be a charity then I'm going to start getting grumpy.

    14. MP presenting quango: Fine. Politics is always done via lobbyists. I've dealt with a thousand salesmen in my job – make your pitch and buy my lunch. After a steep learning curve I learned to spot who to buy from and who would deliver. I have that from running a small company of 26 people but I know you see it too which is why I really hope that you are the next Chancellor.

    It's interesting that my point-by-point comments have got longer as this post has progressed…sorry but annoyance has kicked in. My apologies for the long in-depth response.

  4. Colin Pritchard
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    I would suggest that the hypothetical Honourable Gentleman involved in these transactions should be entrusted with these judgements.

    And in the future, it would help if the candidate selection process took the concept of honour into account. For instance it would seem unlikely that a candidate who had spent most of his working life immersed in the hurly burly of public relations, advertising, or politics and the attendant spinning, would have developed the requisite standard of honour.

    Did I hear a buzz? Yes, I did. It's that damned bee in my bonnet that keeps buzzing/banging on about ends and means. At some point in the last few decades, the aphorism that 'ends don't justify means' has been stood on its head. This has lead to Spin, Extraordinary Rendition, Guantánamo Bay etc. These have all resulted from the modern belief that "actually, ends often do justify means" – copyright TB&AC.

    Until 'means' get the whip hand again, society is in trouble. This won't happen overnight, but, a good start would be for David Cameron to rid himself of the PR spivs that surround him, and operated from his heart. Incidentally, I've been told that it is in the right place. However, until I'm convinced he's no longer under the influence of mendacious opportunists, it's UKIP for me. At least they've got principles that extend beyond 'follow the focus group'.

    And, I'd like to add, the reason I read your blog daily is because it is so obviously 'principled'. More power to your keyboard say I.

  5. Steven_L
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    My tuppenceworth, I'll start at number 2

    2) Permitted, but perhaps there should be figure made public showing which MP's spend the most time in the bars and restaurants, this way we can see which ones are there all the time but never attend debates / votes.

    3) Permitted

    4) Permitted

    5) I can see the logic in expecting this sort of thing to be done outside of the Commons, but since so much other party-politcal activity goes on there, and it doesn't make a difference where they go to dinner, it should probably be permitted.

    6) Permitted, the alternative to this sort of thing is state funding I guess.

    7) As for 6

    8) Permitted

    9) Permitted

    10) Permitted

    11) Permitted

    12) This is tricky from the point of view of being seen to give one company preferential treatment over another. It could also be seen as greasing palms to get consultancy work. Having said that MP's should try to encourage businesses to come to their constituencies and employ people. It is quite common for local authorities / regional development agencies to provide help to business so there is no reason why MP's should not I guess.

    13) Permitted, although this business of single-issue lobby groups touting their pseudo-science, rhetoric and dodgy statistics is one of the things that is wrong with politics. Constituents should be able to find out what lobby groups their MP provides a platform for so they can decide for themselves what they think at the ballot box. I guess the call for some kind of a register means this should come under commons rules, although I wouldn't want responsibility for drafting them.

    14) As 13 but seen as it is public sector the minutes of the meeting should be made public.

  6. Martin Cole
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    This is a very long list with multiple possible responses which to me serve to overcomplicate the dilemma posed.

    I can somewhat clear my own mind on the matter by making a comparison with the handling of the use of a company maintained furnished flat on Park Lane my ex-employer maintained for business entertainment.

    We had several joint venture subsidiaries across Europe and regular board meetings would be quite properly held in the flat followed by lunch. Visiting executives on business from our parent company in the USA would use the flat as office and accomodation when travelling on business.

    A lunch, dinner or accomodation provided solely for employees or their families would have been quite improper and jeopardised the tax treatment of the substantial cost of the flat.

  7. Martin Cole
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I ran out of space to actually answer your question in my earlier response.

    As far as I can see all examples you give should be considered sleazy. This is particularly so following the vote on Bill Cash's New Clause 9 and the actual motion passed on the third reading of the EU (Amendment) Bill.

    Prior to the ECA of 1972 certain of the activities mentioned would have been acceptable but down the years the number has been reduced.

    Once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified a set salary of about twenty thousand pa per MP with no canteen nor expenses would seem to be all that can seriously be justified.

  8. alan
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    1.Cowardly.
    2.Correct way!
    3.Incorrect he/she is your guest. The guest could reciprocate!
    4.The onus is on the party! I would have thought that all donors should be asked if they are friends.acquaintences/been entertained by any MP for proper reporting.
    5.The purpose of the dinner is fundraising-albeit it comes later-should be reported.
    6.report it.
    7. report it.
    8.report both events.
    10. cannot see any need for reporting.
    11.report it. They are in the House because you are an MP!
    12.report it.
    13.report it.
    14.report it.

    when in doubt REPORT.

    Good luck to you John. Our country needs you!

  9. mikestallard
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    John, I think you are missing the point. Personally, I don't mind what you get up to, so long as your own conscience is clear. We trust you, you see. That is how you got elected.
    So why did that Conway thing get so out of control? Because (of the personality of the son -ed). Also, he represented every single thing that Guardian readers dislike about the Tories (said through the nose as if on the BBC). I personally suspect, on no grounds whatsoever, that it was a smokescreen to take the strain off Lord Levy and put it where it belongs: on Tory Sleaze. And, by Jove, it worked.

    With a conjurer, you are directed to look at one hand while the other hand is sliding into his pocket to produce the rabbit.
    Has anyone – anyone at all – noticed the tremendous scandal in the EU about MEP expenses which is currently raging? How the damning evidence is currently locked away under guard (honest). I got all this from Open Europe. It happened at exactly the same time as the scandal over Mr Conway.
    Now that is a real scandal which ought to be discussed in detail!

  10. ROJ
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Life is a grey area.

  11. jane
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I am unable to offer a view on these scenarios. I would need to know if all eating places in the building are subsidised by the taxpayer? If they are, then I do not approve of any of the above situations. I would be very happy for an MP to entertain guests or relatives at any London restaurant. If it is important to entertain guests and relatives in the building, then this should be for tea only.

    A reminder that the House of Commons is supposed to be a place of work and not a "club". If there is a need to have a restaurant for such activities this should be run as a commercial business and MPs should pay accordingly.

  12. sjm
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    In the case of 13 and 14, I doubt that hospitality is beneficial and could be seen as trivialising the communications of serious views on a political issue.

    Otherwise, simply introducing more rules and regulations encourages the search for loopholes.

    And by the way, as a veteran of many HoC dinners, I'm no longer so sure of their attraction since I saw a large rat scurrying along the dado rail in Dining Room B!

  13. Robert Davidson
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    In the current environment where in order to restore trust in the political system rules must be taken to an extreme point the following will have to be the situation.

    The use of Houses of Parliament facilities which are taxpayer subsidised should be restricted to members and employees and guests on legitimate constituency or government business. All bills must be paid by the member and the names of all guests disclosed on public record.

    Any and all personal or party business functions should be banned and infringement should lead to a ban on the use of the HoP facilities.

    Tough but the members have brought it on their own heads. Form now on its guilty until proven innocent.

  14. Tim Worstall
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    There is, as ever, a simple answer. If the £ 5 million p.a. subsidy to the Commons catering were removed then none of the above would be remotely sleazy. It would be private individuals spending their money as they wished.

    The sleaze is in the subsidy, nothing else.

  15. Neil Craig
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    12 seems dodgy to me since the MP is effectively working as a flack for a private company & using Parliament for the purpose. Even there I would not object if most of the customers were overseas ones but I think it would be prudent to get approval from somebody more elevated than myself.

  16. tried&twisted
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I think there's a crucial piece of information missing here which as an outsider I don't have.

    If the cost of the dinner is subsidised by the public purse, then clearly there are issues that any reasonable person would have to consider.

    If the restaurant is required to make a commercial type return then in my view no moral dilemmas arise. The only difference would be the exclusivity of access to the particular location which has many parallels (clubs etc.)

    In the event of the former 1 is clearly the easy out, but it seems pusillanimous to me. In my view raising money is an intrinsic part of being involved in modern politics. The alternative is state funding and how that differs morally from an MP using a somewhat state subsidised restaurant to meet or encourage potential donors beats me.

    So for me (and I'm a PPC with a reasonable prospect of facing this dilemma) I would probably go ahead and do all of 2 -9, always assuming they aren't specifically prohibited by the relevant regulator. It would, of course, be sensible to declare them.

    Interestingly, I think 10 & 11 regarding family use are more problematic. Would many people be allowed to use their workplace to host dinners, particularly if subsidised? Probably not and even if allowed, the tax man would probably want to hear about the benefit in kind from the employer.

    12 does seem a little dicey as I can't see the MP's role in this being in any way in the public interest but 13 & 14 seem to me like perfectly proper uses of an MPs time and resources.

  17. Tony Colvin
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    1. The restaurant at the House of Commons should be privatised and run on a commercial basis without subsidies. Any visitor to the House of Commons should be allowed to use it. This would make the HofC dining room no different in kind from any other restaurant in London.
    2. The identity of the person paying the bill in the HofC dining room should be recorded and made available to public scrutiny.
    3. Ditto the HofC bar, which should be privatised and run as a commercial venture without subsidies.
    4. If a visitor pays an MP's restaurant or bar bill, then the MP must record it as a gift and pay income tax on it.
    5. All MP entertainment allowances should be scrapped.
    6. MP's salaries should be increased to £100,000 pa and every subsidy and allowance scrapped except for receipted travel to and from the constituency. MPs from outside London should be given free accommodation in London provided by the taxpayer in dedicated blocks of flats.
    I think that covers everything. The principle is to eliminate all subsidies and allowances to MPs, and give them a living wage.

  18. Freeborn John
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    (1) This would be a shame.
    (2) Should be permitted
    (3) Should be permitted
    (4) Should be against rules
    (5) Should be against rules
    (6) Should be against rules
    (7) Should be against rules
    (8) Should be against rules
    (9) Should be permitted
    (10) Should be permitted
    (11) Should be against rules (OK if MP attends as official host)
    (12) Should be against rules. (OK without customers?)
    (13) Should be permitted
    (14) Should be permitted

    I think rules should exist for security purposes, to maintain the decorum of the place, and to prevent private gain for the MP or his party. Any scenario where there is an implied exchange of funds between dining guess and an MP or his party is very doubtful to me. I would favour minimal rules to prevent those scenarios, with maximum discretion for the MP beyond that, as the public can always sanction rogues at the ballot box. It seems to me that political parties have the most to lose here as one bad MP will tar the whole parliamentary party. Therefore party rules (and not the criminal law or parliamentary rules) seem appropriate to prevent a party organisation offering dinners with MPs or expecting donations from his/her guests.

  19. Bazman
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    2, 5, 12, 13 and 7 are at least compromising.

    "Do a commercial, you're off the artistic roll call, every word you say is suspect, you're a corporate whore and eh, end of story."
    Bill Hicks. R.I.P.

  20. mikestallard
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your Easter message:
    Happy Easter to you too!

  21. Chuck Unsworth
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    The concern for many is that, (unlike yourself Mr Redwood), in many cases MPs seem unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus this list is open to all sorts of interpretations.

    One has to wonder what has happened to the moralities they learned at their mothers' knees. If you were to ask the same questions of most schoolchildren you'd probably get a very clear pattern.

    However, your list does give a clear indication as to the machinery….

  22. Surrepitious Evil
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Illegal – none of them.

    Against Commons Rules – if subsidised, 12 & 13, possibly 14. You could make a case for 8, too. Of course, the simple thing to do is to have two rates – with a full commercial rate applicable to 8,9 & 12 -14.

  23. niconoclast
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    All politicians are sleazy because Democracy is corrupt beyond repair and politicians live parasitaclly off the people they are supposed to serve but in fact enslave.All three parties support this criminal system and there is no sign from the Conservatives that they will change anything substantially. (File under turkeys/Christmas.)

  24. Alison Saville
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Permitted – 1, 2, 3, 4 (if party did not know about the dinner), 5, 6, 8 (since it's random), 10, 11.

    Against Commons rules – 4 (if party did know about the dinner), 7, 9 (as not random) and 12, 13 & 14 (but I'm not sure about these),

    Illegal – none, unless additional information indicates unlawful intentions.

    Your scenarios indicate that being an MP involves being set down in the centre of a minefield!

  25. John, Wrexham
    Posted March 24, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    1) a
    2) a
    3) b
    4) a
    5) a
    6) a
    7) a
    8) b
    9)b
    10) a
    11) b
    12) b
    13) b
    14) a

    i think really the only way to decide these things as an MP is to base on whether you would feel under some obligation or your constituents would feel you were under some obligation which placed the beneficees in a better position than other constituents or voters.

    If political parties weren't such big spenders, then this merry-go-round of fundraising would not be required. They seem to suffering a debilitating strain of dependency culture with billboard advertising we ignore, armies of paid advisers whom the voters distrust, and a reliance on the top people flying all around the country to make really quite ordinary speeches.

    Reply: THE ANSWER IS THAT ALL DINING TO RAISE MONEY FOR A POLITICAL PARTY USING PARLIAMENTARY FACILITIES IS WRONG. IT IS ALSO WRONG IN MY VIEW THAT THE DINING FACILITIES ARE SUBSIDISED. I AGREE WITH YOU THAT PARTIES RAISE TOO MUCH MONEY – IT IS BECAUSE THEY SPEND TOO MUCH ON SPIN DOCTORS, POLLLING ETC WHEN IT WOULD BE BETTER IF THEY CUT BACK.

  26. Robert
    Posted March 24, 2008 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    John , the reason for the subsidy as you well know is for several reasons. It has to be said that a number of people in the catering department earn more than MPs, though not many I admit! But more importantly, due to recesses the revenue generating opportunity/capability is not the same as a commercial operation which could well be open 364 days a year. It has to be said that the catering staff at the Palace of Westminster probably earn more than their private enterprise opposite numbers as well. Therefore your costs are higher , your revenue generating lower => shortfall => subsidy. Is it true that the subsidy has increased as the number of staff allowed to use the facilities has massively increased? I fear it has. The main problem has been the dramatic increase in the number of staff that can use the Palace of Westmister, some 15/- plus up from some hundreds thirty odd years ago. So all in all when people talk about subsidy they are not comparing like with like. What about all other public service (i.e. the Civil service, BBC etc. ) catering and subsidies? To me the idea that people deliberately take advantage/abuse the 'subsidised' catering at the Palace of Westminster just goes to show how little people understand the place and how it works. Some of the previous comments on this post really just confirm that.

  27. Simon_C
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    It's all bonkers really.
    The meal has to not be perk however it's done.

    So, if it's the equivalent of pie and chips at the local pub (which would probably be in the order of £20 in central London I guess) then it's not a big deal, and I would expect your local "Man in the street" isn't going to think it's a big deal.

    If it's in the order of a meal at a celeb-shef's resteraunt and around £200 then I think people will rightly question where the tax payer's money is going.

    At the end of the day, *everything* should be on the MPs tax return, and the tax man should make the decision if something attracts a personal taxation charge against it for the purposes of a) the job as an MP and b) for the job as a party worker. If something the house of commons pays for would and up attracting a personal charge as far as the IR is concerned, then the party should pay for that BiK.

    Would give MPs an incentive to keep the expenses rules that the rest of us have to follow simple 🙂

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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