Lords accused of sleaze after undercover report

Three peers have been suspended and an investigation launched after they were caught on camera offering to sell their influence for cash. Is Britain more corrupt than we think?

‘Make that £12,000 a month,’ says the grey-haired man, smiling and toying with his glass of water, ‘and I think we’ve got a deal.’

The man is Lord Cunningham, a Labour peer and former cabinet minister. And the deal in question involved working for two days per month as an advocate for a solar energy company. In return for the monthly payments, he would write to government ministers promoting the company’s agenda and table related questions in parliament.

It seemed like easy money. Just 24 days’ work would earn Lord Cunningham £144,000 per year, over five times the average British income. But there was a catch: the energy company was an invention, and the people he was addressing were not in fact lobbyists, but journalists from The Sunday Times.

The interview was part of an undercover investigation into political corruption in which, according to The Times, three British peers were caught on camera discussing the possibility of selling their parliamentary influence to corporate lobby groups.

This is not only a serious breach of parliamentary rules, but a violation of an important principle. If lawmakers’ allegiance can be bought for cash, democracy is compromised and money replaces votes as the source of power.

An investigation has now been launched and all three lords suspended from their parties. This comes hot on the heels of another resignation, after a Conservative MP accepted £4,000 from a fictitious group promoting business interests in Fiji. Among the services he promised to deliver was a fake high level pass to the House of Commons.

These are not the only such scandals in recent British politics. Last year there was the ‘cash for access’ affair, in which a top Tory was caught on camera offering influence with the prime minister in exchange for party donations. And in 2009 the nation was outraged to discover that hundreds of MPs had been abusing the system for claiming parliamentary expenses.

Money matters

Many British people tend to think of their country as a relatively clean and upright place when it comes to politics. But each time one of these scandals occurs, that belief takes another knock. Is Britain a corrupt country? Many people suspect as much: this once proud nation is led, they say, by a greedy and sleazy breed of unscrupulous rogues. Politicians are not to be trusted.

But not everybody is so ready to dismiss parliament as a den of thieves. The very fact that this scandal is so shocking and newsworthy, some say, only goes to show how rare corruption is. According to Transparency International, Britain is in fact one of the 20 least corrupt countries in the world. By all means condemn individual politicians when they err, they say – but we must not lose faith in the system itself.

You Decide

  1. Are politicians generally untrustworthy?
  2. Some people think that members of parliament should be banned from earning income from sources other than their public duties. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Make a list of five adjectives that come to mind when someone mentions the word ‘politician’, and compare your answers with the class. Are they mostly positive or negative?
  2. Write a short story in which somebody is originally devoted to honesty but ends up committing a corrupt act. What pressures lead people to compromise their morals?

Some People Say...

“Power always corrupts.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How am I supposed to keep faith in politics when I keep hearing stories like this?
Although stories like this give a bad impression of politics, they are in one way a good sign: it is a sign that the media is fulfilling its role of holding politicians accountable. It’s justifiable to get angry with politicians, but careful not to get too cynical – as well as getting caught in scandals, politicians do a lot of tough and often thankless work in the public interest.
Really? Like what?
The life of an MP is not as luxurious as you might think: talking to constituents and businesses about local issues, navigating the technicalities of the political system, dealing with a sensationalist press. And all for a smaller salary than they could expect to earn elsewhere.

Word Watch

Lobbyists
People who professionally promote political backing for particular interests or causes, whether those of a company, industry, charity or ideology.
Fiji
This tiny island nation in the Pacific is famous for its stunning natural beauty. It has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 2006.
Party donations
Political parties in Britain are funded by a mixture of membership fees and donations from companies and individuals. These donations are not supposed to buy political influence, but last year the Conservative Party treasurer was caught by journalists promising that a gift of £100,000 or more would be ‘awesome for your business’.
Parliamentary expenses
Many MPs were found to have wrongly claimed money for second homes. Six have so far been imprisoned, with one more awaiting sentencing.
Transparency International
An NGO which publishes a yearly monitor of corruption around the world. The least corrupt nations in the latest report were New Zealand, Denmark and Finland. The most corrupt were Somalia, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Subjects

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