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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Dinner in the Commons

I note that the Conservative Party and its MPs have now been referred to the parliamentary standards commissioner for allegedly abusing abuse House of Commons and Lords dining rooms to raise cash to fight marginal seats at the next election. No doubt Sir Philip Mawer will report in due course on this complaint. The Guardian reports:

The inquiry is likely to concentrate on whether MPs and peers have made profits from the dinners or whether people who join patrons' clubs have to pay a large membership fee to get access to the House of Commons dinners.

A dossier seen by the Guardian shows that Mr Cameron and his predecessor, Michael Howard, are among the MPs facing complaints. They include George Osborne, shadow chancellor; Alan Duncan, shadow trade and industry industry; Grant Shapps, the party vice-chairman in charge of campaigning; Oliver Letwin, policy chief, and a long list of backbenchers.

Two Labour MPs have sent evidence to Sir Philip, including a list of "suspect" dinners and extracts from Conservative MPs' websites which disclose details of elite donors' clubs that advertise dinners in the Commons and admit that these events are part of a fundraising campaign. They also include private tours of parliament.

Among the many examples of patrons' clubs are platinum membership of Chester Conservatives - a constituency where Labour has a majority of 915 - which promises for £500 a year "chances to meet leading party figures in a select environment, plus dinner at the House of Commons with a senior Conservative MP".

Many of the dinners are addressed by leading members of the shadow cabinet and the party leader, while other leading Tories, such as Michael Ancram and Alan Duncan, run their own patrons' clubs. Peers accused of breaching rules include Lord Heseltine, the former deputy PM, and Lord Hunt of Wirral, a former cabinet minister. Complaints about them have been passed to Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, who handles members' interests matters in the Lords.

The way that public money is used by MPs has long been of concern to me. Evident amongst the recent publication of parliamentarian's expenses is large sums of money spent on postage. Often this involves posting unsolicited newsletters and calendars to constituents so as to bolster support for a particular MP. As far as I know this is entirely within the rules, though I may try out a complaint to see how far it gets me next time one drops through my letterbox.

What is most galling is how non-transparent this process is. Requests to the Commons' authorities for details of expenditure on this sort of activity under the Freedom of Information legislation are met with a blank refusal. I have an appeal pending, though for some reason that is now coming up to its first anniversary.

If this activity is legal and above-board then why can MPs not be scrutinised on it? It is certainly banned in the Welsh Assembly because we do not think it is an appropriate use of public funds. Perhaps Parliament needs to review its own rules so as to stamp out abuse of process as well.
I'm going for dinner in Westminster next week... with a Lib Dem.
Presumably, you did not have to pay £500 to join a Patron Club first.
No. Just £20. And I'll eat that twice over in volauvents so they'll gain nothing from me.
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