This post is prompted by finally finishing Parliament Ltd, by Martin Williams.
I didn’t anticipate being surprised or shocked. I just thought it would provide me with excellent examples to share. I was wrong. I was shocked.
Nothing prepared me for an illustrative example offered relating to a politician referred to as “Loretta“. That is not his/her real name. Why can this not be shared? Read on.
The research for this book has clearly been laborious. If you, like me, thought we had a transparent, & accountable’ system to register MP’s interests think again. The delving required led the author to conclude that it is ” really really easy for MP’s to hide their investments in big business” (p17).
British companies have to send their list of shareholders to Companies House on an annual basis. It’s a public register so it should be easy to check. Turns out to be quite labour intensive. Inaccessible if not nigh on impenetrable. To track down shareholders for BAE Systems (UK’s largest Arms dealer) the author had to physically travel to an office in Lancing & search for politicians one at a time! The alternative is to pay £95 for each separate search. This is prohibitively expensive if your aim is to establish share holding for dozens of companies.
Let me cut to the chase. In 2003 Loretta was a senior conservative MP who “held a powerful & influential position” (p.17). S/he was pro-war and voted for the Invasion of Iraq. S/he actively promoted war making speeches in favour of military action. After the vote was passed s/he purchased shares in BAE systems which were held from 2004-2006. This was never declared or made public by the MP. War proved to present too tempting an investment opportunity. There was , however, no way of knowing that a politician had seized an opportunity, to profit, on the back of a war for which they voted.
Why don’t we know? Should it not be Registered?
Well reading the code of conduct quoted on page 29 it seems we should. A member should register anything “if the Member considers that it might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions or words”. That seems to cover it.
In reality there are zero internal, formal audits to check the Register of Interests. If an omission is discoverered (presumably if reported) there are limited sanctions There are plenty of egregious examples, in the book, of precisely these types of “omissions” . There are scant penalties even if there is the will to pursue and “prosecute” alleged offenders.
Why can’t s/he be named?
This was the most Kafkaesque part. The Companies Act 2006 has a provision called Section 116. Before this act shareholder registers were free & accessible to the public. After this legislation section 116 has a bizarre consequence. If you want to access the information you have to provide reasons. You also have to disclose the name and address of anyone with whom who you will share the information. So the author cannot reveal the name of this MP to his readers, such as myself, because he has no way of anticipating who will buy his book.
Loretta , as of 2017, remains a prominent figure in the House of Commons and can still maintain a cloak of secrecy about his/her investment in the arms trade. It seems, we the voters have no right to know about this.
There are plenty of other egregious examples in this book. It raises the serious question of just who MPs ( and Lords) really work for? Those politicians who work long hours as genuine public servants are done a disservice by this lack of transparency. I do not think they are all should be tarred with the same brush but until things are tightened up they will , regrettably, suffer from widespread public mistrust.
I hope lots more people read it. A thoroughly well researched and , despite the content, entertaining read. Manages to be humorous without diluting the anger that we should all feel on reading it.