• Cash for questions: Daily Telegraph and BBC expose Mercer

    1st June 2013 | News | Claire
  • As the former soldier turned Conservative MP strode into what he thought was the office of a lobbying company near Parliament, the offer on the table was clear.

    For a fee of £2,000 a month, Patrick Mercer, a popular figure in the House of Commons, would push the Government to allow the rogue Fijian regime to rejoin the Commonwealth.

    The smartly-dressed lobbyist Mr Mercer thought he was meeting said the parliamentary campaign was being funded by a group of anonymous businesses that wished to profit from Fiji’s return to the international fold.

    Unknown to the MP, the “lobbyist” was an undercover reporter investigating how Parliamentarians are prepared to influence the political process for paying clients.

    It is almost 20 years since the “cash for questions” scandal rocked Parliament and became a symbol of Tory sleaze, but there are still persistent allegations that some Parliamentarians are willing to break the rules.

    Undercover reporters from The Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama approached MPs and peers who had been suspected of using their position in the Commons and Lords to advance their clients’ interests. During a series of meetings with Mr Mercer, it appeared that the allegations were well founded.

    At an early meeting, the former shadow minister set out what he could offer. “I should be rewarded for the advice that I give to yourselves and/or directly to the government of Fiji,” the MP said.

    A range of mechanisms are available to MPs wishing to raise concerns in the Commons. They can set up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) to facilitate debate and publish reports, table motions to highlight issues and ask questions of ministers.

    During the meetings, Mr Mercer agreed to implement all three. However, there was a problem of which he was all too well aware: strict rules ban paid advocacy specifically to prevent a cash-for-lobbying scandal.

    Nonetheless, Mr Mercer was keen to proceed as agreed to set up and chair an APPG for Fiji on behalf of the lobbyists and suggested that publicly he would have to demonstrate a newfound interest in the Pacific islands.

    He said to the bogus lobbyist: “About the way [the clients] raise their problems and difficulties in Parliament, as the chairman of the APPG for Fiji this is something that interests me, in which I’m involved.”

    Mr Mercer stressed that officially, “as far as the consultancy is concerned, that happens outside of parliamentary hours”.

    He added: “And I leave my parliamentary coat hanging outside.”

    “When I come to consult you, or, sorry, when you come to consult, sorry, when I come for you to consult me. However that manifests itself, that will never take place on parliamentary property.”

    “I understand that,” said the reporter.

    Mr Mercer added: “We must make sure that our client is completely clear that they are talking to a private individual.”

    The Conservative MP began reading his contract which specified that his work involved Fiji, which Mr Mercer wanted to remove from the official paperwork.

    The bogus lobbyist asked Mr Mercer: “I couldn’t work out why you wanted the word ‘Fiji’ struck out [of the contract]?”

    “Because, because … right, I might be being oversensitive,” the MP replied.

    Mr Mercer suggested he describe himself as a “consultant” for the lobbying firm, to apparently obscure the link to Fiji.

    “OK. You’re paying me £2,000 a month, if you want to talk to me about defence issues, security issues, policing issues, outside of Fiji, I’m your consultant.”

    The Conservative MP agreed to sign the contract and conversation returned to the job at hand – lobbying Parliament over Fiji. “We mentioned briefly the EDM [early day motion], it’s just that I’ve got to show the client that something’s up and running,” said the undercover reporter as he passed the MP a document showing proposed wording for the motion.

    It read: “This House recognises that the government of Fiji is making all reasonable efforts to restore democracy and feels that in the light of the ongoing hardship being endured by its businesses there is no justification for Fiji’s continued suspension from the Commonwealth and therefore urges this Government to arrange a ministerial visit in order to help prepare for and assist its readmission”.

    “Can we get that in before the recess [the parliamentary Easter break]?” asked the reporter.

    “Yes, course we can,” replied Mr Mercer. “I’ll get that sorted out and we’ll start getting that signed up.”

    The EDM appeared on the parliamentary website the following week with almost the same wording as the motion drafted by the reporter. It has since been signed by four MPs. There is no suggestion the MPs who signed the motion have done anything wrong.

    After the Easter recess, Mr Mercer met the reporter in the Marriott hotel across the river from Parliament. The discussion turned again to the EDM. The reporter said the client was “very pleased” with the motion and that he was “brilliantly earning your money, which by the way will go through today”.

    Mr Mercer responded by giving a “thumbs up” sign. The following day, the MP was paid £2,000 by the fake communications company. It was the first of two instalments he would be paid during the undercover investigation.

    The MP told the lobbyist he was making progress establishing the APPG. Mr Mercer said it would not be a problem attracting members. There were “several freeloaders that would like to go to Fiji”.

    “This is extremely attractive,” said Mr Mercer. “I mean who doesn’t want a trip to Fiji, who doesn’t want a trip to the South Seas?

    “It’ll be fine once we start pushing. I’ve deliberately soft-pedalled the Tories because they’re easy. It’s the Labour guys I need to get on board.”

    At the next meeting, Mr Mercer said things had moved faster than he had expected. He had persuaded 18 MPs to join the APPG, including a vice-chairman from the Labour Party. “By early next week we’re there,” Mr Mercer said. “The notice has now been put into the orders of the House that we’re formed and as you know we have two weeks’ notice.”

    He said one MP had raised a specific question about the trip.

    “I am sorry to have to ask this but [name of MP], for instance, who is one of the … individuals who is very keen – he said I would love to go to Fiji,” said Mr Mercer.

    “[The MP said] ‘can I bring the wife?’, I said, ‘I just don’t know, I’ll have to ask’.”

    The reporter replied that he did not think the client would mind.

    The pair met the next week to discuss how the group was progressing.

    Mr Mercer said the group might be having its “inaugural meeting” the following week. He said he and a Labour MP would be the “joint chairmen”, two other MPs would be the “officers”, others would be the “vice chair or one of them will be treasurer, that kind of thing”.

    Mr Mercer seemed in no doubt the driving force of the APPG was the lobbying company and its client. “The work starts as and when you give us directions, or … when I give directions to the APPG according to my conversations with you”.

    In another meeting with the bogus lobbyist, there was one more request for Mr Mercer: could he submit a question to the House of Commons?

    The MP reached across the table to receive a piece of paper, on which a draft question had been written.

    Mr Mercer tapped his pencil on the desk as he considered the options. It would be better, he suggested, if the submission to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was broken down into a “handful” of smaller questions. “I would probably get my man to compose the questions and then put them in,” he said.

    “Why so many?” asked the bogus lobbyist. “Bulk,” replied Mr Mercer. “It’s all a question of levering information out of them [the Government],” he said.

    Five written questions duly appeared in Hansard, the official House of Commons register, as the MP had promised, and Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister, subsequently responded to Mr Mercer’s newfound interest in Fiji.

    The link to the story is here – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10092608/Cash-for-questions-how-the-deal-was-sealed-with-Patrick-Mercer.html