New cash for honours revelations should speed reform of House of Lords

Following Lord Razzall's revelation that he was approached by businessmen offering money for peerages, it's time to stop rewarding political donors through the honours list.

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Watching them in the chamber or shuffling about in their scarlet ermine trimmed robes at ceremonial occasions such as the state opening of parliament, it is easy to regard the Lords as a quaint and harmless British anachronism, like Beef-Eaters or Morris dancers. But make no mistake  the Lords are among the most powerful and privileged people in the land: a potent symbol of our antiquated class system and the most reactionary and undemocratic aspects of Westminster politics. And in order to secure a peerage many are prepared to break the law.

Last week, while plugging his new book on BBC Radio 5, former Liberal Democrat Treasurer, Lord Razzall, blithely described how he was regularly approached by wealthy businessmen, often with no interest in politics, who would appear “out of the blue” offering million-pound donations in exchange for a seat in the House of Lords. During his 12 years as party treasurer from 1988-2000, he estimated that these approaches would happen "several times a year".

Rather than reporting these illegal approaches to the police, Razzall explained that he would politely refuse the money. "Everybody knows what you have to say, which is, 'I'm terribly sorry. That's a criminal offence. Would you mind keeping quiet,'" the peer explained. Yet by keeping quiet, he was allowing scores of criminal offences to go unpunished.

Under British law, it is illegal even to request a peerage in exchange for party donations and it is extraordinary that Razzall, who worked as a solicitor for nearly 30 years, appeared unaware of this.

Corruptly soliciting advantage from a public servant is criminalised under a raft of anti-corruption legislation and there is even a specific law – the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 – which states that it is a criminal offence for someone to offer "any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour".

Yet when asked why he failed to report the crimes to the police, Razzall told the BBC presenter that, "no offence had been committed" because no peerage had been procured. When pressed as to whether the attempt to buy an honour was itself a criminal offence, Razzall seemed less than certain. "No. I don't think it's an offence, so no."

Responding to the revelations, a Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “We are not aware of any of the specific conversations Lord Razzall discussed. As he made clear, any attempt to bribe a political party, and pay for a peerage is illegal. These are points he has previously made before select committee hearings, echoed by treasurers from other political parties. As the Labour cash-for-peerages scandal proved, anyone engaging in this activity should face the full force of the law.”

Unlike in some American states where the failure by public officials to report bribery attempts is itself a crime, Razzall did not commit an offence by failing to report attempts to buy peerages. But his nonchalance gives an indication as to why the practice was, and perhaps still is, so commonplace. "Anybody who has been a party treasurer of any of the three parties will tell you, if they're honest, that there are numerous people who come to you and said, you know, I'll give you a million pounds if I can go in the House of Lords," he said. “All I can say is that a lot of treasurers would have to spend a lot of time at the police station if we had to report anyone who said that to us.”

Razzall's descriptions echo the concerns of former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Matthew Oakeshott who last May described his frustration at the failure of his efforts to, “expose and end cash for peerages in all parties, including our own.” Oakeshott’s statement was followed in June by revelations that the three biggest donors to the Liberal Democrats had been given peerages by Nick Clegg.

The system of rewarding political donors through the mechanism of the honours list may have been commonplace since the days of Lloyd George. It may well be used by all main political parties. But it needs to be stopped.

Last week, Angus MacNeil, the MP who first brought the so-called "cash for honours" scandal to the attention of the police in 2006, wrote to Scotland Yard asking them to investigate Lord Razzall’s new claims. The 2006 investigation lasted for 16 months but failed to bring any prosecutions because no direct evidence of an agreement in advance could be found. Razzall’s new revelations could provide the direct evidence of criminal activity lacking in the previous investigation. According to MacNeil, “[t]his is not so much the smoke from a smoking gun as the actual gun itself.”

Stefan Simanowitz is a political journalist. He asked Lord Razzall whether he had reported the illegal approaches and if not why not during the BBC Radio 5 interview on 19/11/14. He then wrote the story with the Daily Mail’s political editor which appeared on 20/11/14.