Lobbying scandal spreads to House of Lords

Lord Cunningham, Lord Laird, Lord Mackenzie accepted cash for lobbying.

And now the House of Lords has been dragged into the lobbying scandal. Following an investigation by the Telegraph and Panorama that has just ended Patrick Mercer's career, three members of the House of Lords were filmed offering to lobby ministers for cash. Lord Cunningham, Lord Laird and Lord Mackenzie told undercover reporters from the Sunday Times they would ask parliamentary questions to benefit a ficticious firm, and set up an all-party group as a lobbying vehicle. They also revealed that some peers were hiding conflicts of interest via job-swap deals, pulling strings for each other's clients in parliament. However all three deny any wrongdoing.

“The rules are very complex, but let’s not accuse all members who were involved in all this of being corrupt when in fact they aren’t," Lord Mackenzie told Radio 5live. "They’re simply trying to find their way through the morass of rules – it’s very difficult at times. But I’m quite clear I’ve broken no rules, I’ve asked no questions for money, and I’ve lobbied no ministers and nor would I do.”

He called for a reform of parliamentary rules to make them clearer.

As they stand, the rules for House of Lords members ban them from acting as advocates, hosting functions in the Lords or attempting to influence parliament, and, since 2009, "seeking to profit from membership of the house" in any way, even if they declared a financial interest. During the secretly filmed conversation with reporters, detailed in today's Sunday Times, Mackenzie explained how one could work round them:

“There is a rule that you shouldn’t host a reception in parliament where you have a pecuniary interest,” he said. “I thought that’s bloody nonsense. Nonetheless ... how would you get round that? “I just say to a colleague who has nothing to do with it, would you host a function for me?” He added: “Of course, I do the business anyway, but that gets round it.”

Jack Cunningham with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.