The ‘Cash for Access’ scandal has provoked a new storm within parliament, tarnishing the reputations of MPs and leading to the resignation of one former Conservative grandee. But what is at the root of the scandal and what are the wider implications for British democracy?
The scandal was first sparked by undercover filming carried out by the Telegraph and Channel 4’s dispatches documentary, in which reporters posed as a fake Chinese company. The filming purports to show two MPs, both of whom have spent a long period in parliament and held many positions in government, offering their services to private companies in exchange for cash.
The figure initially at the centre of the allegations was Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was the Conservative MP for Kensington and the chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. In the Telegraph recordings Rifkind is seen boasting that he could submit questions on behalf of private clients and that he could arrange “useful access” to every British diplomatic ambassador in the world.
Another MP who has been embroiled in the controversy is Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary. Straw is alleged to have used his parliamentary office, facilities and staff to help further his own private business interests, which is a breach of the Common’s Member’s handbook. He also claimed that he had used his influence as an MP to operate ‘under the radar’, changing EU regulations for the benefit of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year.
This has ramifications for both Labour and the Conservative Party, especially since it has happened so close to the general election, which has marred the ambitions of Ed Miliband to ‘remake politics’. Rifkind has had the Conservative Party whip removed and has announced that he will step down as an MP, while Straw has suspended himself from the Labour Party and will step down as an MP at the general election in May. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said ‘people should not be in parliament to add to their personal fortune’, echoing the controversy of the expenses scandal which led to many MPs standing down and a review of the expenses system.
Smaller parties have also raised concerns about the aftermath of the scandal, with worries that the two MPs accused could be chosen to enter the House of Lords. Angus MacNeil, a Scottish National Party MP, commented:
I have asked David Cameron and Ed Miliband for absolute guarantees that neither of these politicians are to be considered for a peerage. Their behaviour this week cannot be dismissed as ’silly‘ or an ‘error of judgement’ as they maintained. It goes to the very heart of why Westminster is held in such low regard. The House of Lords is no more than a House of cronies and paymasters and it is quite clearly beyond reform. Both the Tory and Labour party still stuff this chamber to the gunnels, and it now has over 800 members – unelected and completely unaccountable.
To add to their number the two MPs involved in this week’s scandal would be an affront to democracy and would diminish even more the reputation of Westminster. David Cameron and Ed Miliband have it within their power and influence to ensure this does not happen.