Should we hold a Cabinet Minister to his words? More specifically, should we try and hold Peter Mandelson to these ones? “In managing my department’s business as secretary of state I will, of course, in line with the Ministerial Code, ensure that no conflict of interest, or perception of such, arises from any of my past, or indeed future, contacts.”
No, this isn’t piling in about Oleg Deripaska or what did or did not happen on yachts that may or may not have been near Corfu. Rather, this is about M’Lord’s relationship with the European Union, specifically, the some £78,000 a year he’s going to be getting from the European Commission for the next three years.
Sometimes called a “relocation allowance” this is in fact a top up to his wages, something to make sure that now he’s left office his standard of living does not fall to that of a mere Cabinet Minister. If his income falls the payment will rise and vice versa: the point is that whatever he does he should still be receiving, at minimum, the pay of an EU Commissioner. Even though it was him that resigned.
Whether this is in fact a payment which leads to a conflict of interest is rather in the eye of the beholder.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch has been running for some years now a rather lonely campaign to insist that EU pensioners declare such an interest in debates. Lord Woolf, in a sub-committee report, agreed, for such pensions, unlike almost all others, are conditional. Conditional that is, on the recipients continuing to uphold the interest of the EU itself, just as if they were still in office (as defined, of course, by the Union itself). And yes, the Commission has indeed tried to stop the pension of a former Commissioner, a certain Mme. Cresson, although the European Court of Justice rejected their request.
Unfortunately, the Privileges Committee declined to take this forward so those holding a conditional pension need not make a declaration when speaking in the Lords.
However, the Ministerial Code is much stricter stating: “Ministers must scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest.” Now maybe I’m being a tad picky here but nigh on £80,000 a year looks to me like at least the potential for a conflict of interest. Which leads us to a further set of interesting questions.
Firstly, has this been declared, as it should be, to the permanent secretary of the department? Or has our new Baron simply decided that, contrary to what the fabled “reasonable man” would say, that this simply cannot even be perceived as a conflict?
It is possible for a minister to retain outside interests but, as with judges in a court case, he must step aside in a situation where such an interest clashes with his brief.
Which in the case of our business secretary would rather obviate the point of having him as business secretary. For as we all know, the vast majority (some 80 per cent when including such things as Statutory Instruments) of our business and commercial law now comes from Brussels. What with the implementation of all those Single Market regulations and so on.
What we end up with from all of this is the following:
Either Lord Mandelson thinks that hauling down three times the average wage from an over-the-water organisation is simply too trivial for anyone to even perceive as a conflict of interest … something I’d argue isn’t really his decision to make, for perception is in our eyes, not his.
Or, he does think it is something which should be declared and he thus does not, while in office, deal with European Union matters. Which, as above, is probably something which leaves him rather a large amount of time to twiddle his thumbs, given that the EU is the source of so much of our legislation.
Thumb twiddling which we are paying him close to £110,000 a year as a Cabinet Minister in the Lords to do.
I realise that I’m somewhat out of touch with the zeitgeist here for I’ve not seen anyone else mentioning this as yet. But don’t you think that it is a series of questions that should be asked? Is £78,000 a year something that could be perceived to be a conflict of interest under the Ministerial Code? If so, has it been declared?
Finally, if it has been, what is our new minister doing to occupy his time if he has, as it would appear is necessary, removed himself from consideration of EU legislation and negotiations as such an interest would require?