The era of sleaze and cash for questions

John Major’s government became tarnished with allegation and incidents of ‘sleaze’. One of these happened in 1994 when it became clear that some people within the Conservative party had agreed to put questions to Parliament in exchange for money. Two Conservative Members of Parliament, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, were accused by the Guardian Newspaper of taking money and accepting gifts (such as a stay in the Ritz) from Mohamed Al Fayed (then owner of Harrods), to make sure they asked certain questions in the House of Commons. It was said that Mr Ian Greer, a lobbyist, was their ‘middle-man’ shuttling the money and instructions between them.

When the allegations became public, Tim Smith admitted to the cash and immediately resigned. Neil Hamilton said he was innocent. Hamilton was forced to resign as a minister of the government as charges had been brought against him (standard for ministers) and then he lost his parliamentary seat in 1997 to an independent candidate Martin Bell (news journalist) who stood against him with an anti-sleaze message.

2013 Patrick Mercer stepped down and declared he would not be standing at the next election after he was caught allegedly agreeing to lobby on behalf of a fake company working for the military dictatorship in Fiji.

The United Kingdom parliamentary expenses scandal was a major political scandal that emerged in 2009, concerning expenses claims made by members of the British Parliament in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords over the previous years. The disclosure of widespread misuse of allowances and expenses permitted to Members of Parliament (MPs) aroused widespread anger among the UK public and resulted in a large number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements together with public apologies and the repayment of expenses. Several members or former members of both the House of Commons, and members of the House of Lords, were prosecuted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

A February 2008 Freedom of Information Act request for the release of details of MPs' expenses claims was allowed by an Information Tribunal but challenged by the House of Commons Authorities on the grounds that it was "unlawfully intrusive". In May 2008 the High Court (England and Wales) ruled in favour of releasing the information. In April 2009 the House of Commons authorities announced that publication of expenses, with certain information deemed "sensitive" removed would be made in July 2009. But before this could take place the expenses records and documentation were leaked to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which began publishing details in daily instalments from 8 May 2009.

These disclosures dominated the British media for weeks. On 18 June 2009 the details of all MPs' expenses and allowance claims approved from 2004 to 2008 were published on the official Parliament website with detail such as addresses, claims that were not approved for payment and correspondence between MPs and the parliamentary fees office removed, bringing further accusations of unnecessary secrecy and allegations that this might have prevented serious abuses from being disclosed.

Since most claims revolved around MPs' second homes in London, a panel was established to investigate all claims relating to the "second homes" allowance between 2004 and 2008. Headed by former civil servant Sir Thomas Legg, the panel published its findings on 12 October as MPs returned to Westminster following the summer recess. Each MP received a letter stating whether or not he or she would be required to repay any expenses claimed. Details of voluntary repayments by MPs amounting to almost £500,000 were also officially published.

It was announced on 5 February 2010 that criminal charges of false accounting were to be prosecuted against four parliamentarians, all later jailed. On 19 May charges were brought against two more, on 13 and 14 October 2010 two more faced legal proceedings. Three peers were suspended on 18 October 2010 due to their expenses claims.The revelations resulted in six MPs being convicted of criminal offences as a result of the investigation. The attempt of some of them to claim that parliamentary privilege protected them from prosecution was dismissed by the UK Supreme Court in R v Chaytor, which helpfully provided a clear judicial statement on the extent of parliamentary privilege.

There were two other positive outcomes. Firstly, the Brown government introduced and procured the passage of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. This established IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has for better or worse taken away responsibility for MPs’ expenses and salary away from the House itself. For example, the rules on employment by MPs of members of their family are now decided not by the House, but by IPSA.

Secondly, Gordon Brown initiated the creation of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee: what became known as the ‘Wright Committee’. In November 2009 it produced a far-reaching report, much of which was implemented with bipartisan support over the course of the next year. For a detailed analysis, read Unit Director Meg Russell’s insightful article on the Wright Committee reforms.