The Greensill case demonstrates why we need absolute transparency at every level of government
Instead of a government review, we need a proper parliamentary committee charged with instituting a full review of lobbying, the ministerial code and the revolving door of ministers and officials securing profitable jobs after they leave office.
Politics is about three things: what you believe in, how you deliver what you believe in, and who you ally yourself with to deliver what you believe in. The three aspects are all equally important. If you have no convictions you’re only left with personal connections – cronyism – but if you have no allies you can never get anything done. That’s why solitaire is rarely a wise political manoeuvre.
At the most basic level, I am the MP for the Rhondda not because I am a wonderful, charming and charismatic person (or not), but because I am the Labour candidate allied with the rest of the Labour Party and movement in a common cause.
I say all this because some of the talk about cronyism in politics is misjudged. I want my politicians to have allies and to be well-connected. I’m not opposed to lobbying, either. When I sat on the Mental Health Act public bill committee I needed lobbyists from mental health charities, the BMA, patients’ groups and pharmaceutical companies to come and talk me through the issues so that I spoke and voted on the basis of informed knowledge.
But – and this is a very big but – nobody should have privileged access to decision-makers; and the only way to ensure that all access is equal is to insist on absolute transparency at every level of government and political life.
Officials shouldn’t be able to allow a company to get its way on a deal or a piece of legislation on the quiet understanding that five years later they’ll be able to walk into a lucrative job. Ministers should publish details of all their meetings with third parties within five working days of those meetings, including meetings ‘in the margins’ of fundraising events. And of course the legal definition of lobbyists should include in-house employees as well as contracted public relations advisers.
Ministers should not be able to turn down suitably qualified potential appointees for taxpayer-funded posts just because they don’t have a Tory party membership card
This is vital when large government contracts are being awarded, especially when this is being done at such a pace that some corners perhaps inevitably have to be cut, as when sourcing PPE during a pandemic. I still find it extraordinary that we do not know which contracts were awarded through the so-called VIP channel last year, and which MPs or peers recommended the contractors in each case. That seems fundamental. If the clinical need for speed outweighed the requirement for full tendering process, the very least government should do is let the sunlight of transparency in.
Similarly, we need to return to a proper, merit basis for government appointments. Ministers should not be able to turn down suitably qualified potential appointees for taxpayer-funded posts just because they don’t have a Tory party membership card or share the government’s ideological attitude on the cultural issues of the day.
If we don’t staunch this soon my fear is we shall get used to government politicising every element of our public life and you will end up seeing a new government turf out everyone they don’t care for, all the way down to the head of the local library or the dog warden.
We’ve always thought an independent civil service was a concept that kept us more honest than other nations. Which is why I ask, along with Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty, ‘when did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?’
As for the government’s review of the Greensill case, I fear the government knows full well that this will be neither independent or meaningful. What we need is a proper parliamentary committee charged with instituting a full review of lobbying, the ministerial code and the revolving door of ministers and officials securing profitable jobs after they leave office. It needs to be able to summon witnesses and evidence and to guarantee witnesses exemption from prosecution for what they say. That’s why it has be a proceeding in parliament.
Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda and chair of the standards committee.