The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) has afforded the media an opportunity to scrutinise and reveal the exploitation of expense claims by Members of Parliament. However two shortfalls both concerning lack of accountability continue to undermine the legitimacy of the British Parliamentary system.
First, the FOIA fails to identify instances of corruption where it exists in both Houses of Parliament. Corruption involves illegal, immoral and dishonest behaviour that subverts the legitimacy of the system of governance. In this sense political corruption can be distinguished from the exploitation of MPs expense claims. Whilst the expenses scandal affords the honourable members an unwarranted gain it does not undermine the legislative process.
Secondly, members of the House of Lords are relied upon for their independent advice, yet members are also free to retain private business interests. On occasions peers have agreed to lobby for these outside interests. Again, this corrodes democratic governance by undermining the integrity of the legislative process.
The problem with corruption lies deeper than its non-disclosure under the FOIA. This is especially true in relation to corruption by peers in the House of Lords. Since 1712, Parliament has remained unwilling to strip peers of their status regardless of any criminal or other conviction.
The Green Book, a code of conduct for MPs, allows expense claims that are "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the performance of a Member's parliamentary duties". The list of questionable expenses revealed by requests under the FOIA and leaked information, has primarily involved nominating second homes, flipping, renting out homes, evading and avoiding tax, claiming expenses while living in 'grace and favour' homes, exploitation of the 'no receipt' rule for claims below £250 and overspending at the end of the financial year to avoid enquiry.
But, the damage done by these claims is minimal in comparison to forms of corruption that, on occasion, have emerged in both Houses of Parliament. Corruption breaches the Parliamentary code of conduct which states that Parliamentarians "must never accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence". Astonishingly the very same code does not shield peers from the temptation of bribery because it fails to outlaw their ability to advise and maintain interests in private business and so remain subject to clandestine influence.
The seriousness of this inconsistency is apparent when the nature of the 'Upper Chamber' is taken into account. The House of Lords exists to create and impose legislation and review the legitimacy of law and actions of the House of Commons. Incongruously, peers remain largely unaccountable for their conduct because they are allowed to retain their Parliamentary status even after a finding of proven corruption. Meanwhile MP's are questioned in relation to financial misconduct which is comparatively trivial. If an MP is believed to be guilty of misconduct he will be removed from office.Corruption in Parliament crosses both Houses and tends to present itself in three forms.
The first circumstance involves lobbying for legislative change. For example, in 1989 Neil Hamilton, a Conservative MP billed Mobil Oil £10,000 for his parliamentary services having proposed an amendment to a finance bill that, if passed, would have saved oil companies £70m in additional taxation. This abuse did not come to light for a decade and when it did Hamilton was not punished. Such sleaze rots the core of British governance and the UK legislative system.
Secondly, corruption has involved lobbying for particular use of State expenditure. A particularly shameful case involved Reginald Maudling who abused his position as Home Secretary to lobby for more UK aid to Malta having obtained a commission for the company he was involved with. Such lobbying resulted in severe loss to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of Maudling and two other MPs concluded that Maudling had indulged in "conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members." The Government at the time turned a blind eye to the corruption and when the report was considered by the House of Commons, the Conservative Party organised its MPs to attend the debate so as to "Save Reggie". An amendment was passed to "take note" of the report, instead of endorsing it. No punishment was imposed.
A third form of perceived political corruption occurred in the "cash for honours" debacle in the House of Lords. It was alleged that the Labour Party's chief fundraiser, Lord Levy, offered honours on a sliding scale of prices, up to £2 million. After investigation no one was prosecuted. Had the allegations been proven true and a conviction resulted, it is unlikely that membership of the House would have been revoked anyway. Both Lords Archer and Lord Watson were convicted of criminal offences and subsequently returned to the House of Lords.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope that peers will now be held accountable for established cases of corruption. Lord Truscott and three other peers have recently been accused of seeking a £72,000 fee to help two people posing as lobbyists "amend a government bill that was harmful to their client", saying he would have to "be a 'bit careful' and could not table the amendment himself." He also claimed to have "done similar work before" on a recent piece of energy legislation. In this instance the House of Lords has voted to suspend Lord Truscott and Lord Taylor for six months.
Furthermore, last week Gordon Brown announced plans to establish a Parliamentary standards authority as well as a legally binding code of conduct for MP's. The Prime Minister also pledged to "crackdown" on misconduct in the House of Lords and raised the possibility of extending the FOIA to bodies not currently included.
Such statements are promising, however they are not enough. Three concerns linger. Firstly, change is needed to the rules of membership of the House of Lords. Peers should not be able to maintain business interests nor act as external advisors whilst a Member of the House without making full disclosure of their interest. Transparency must be the touchstone. Secondly, the status of a peer having been convicted of an offence should be subject to review by an independent body. Lastly, rhetoric is not enough, swift action is vital. The legitimacy of Parliament will remain open to dispute until promise of change actuates into real reform - "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely".