Saturday, June 08, 2013 - 15.16 GMT
Have LTTE funds stoked sleaze lobbying in UK ?
By Lucien Rajakarunanayake
If the brutal killing of a soldier in broad daylight at Woolwich two weeks ago by two terrorists sent new shock waves about terrorism in the UK, the Tory-LibDem coalition is facing another major issue over the extent of sleaze in Parliament – both the Commons and Lords.
After Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip last week amid claims he broke lobbying rules, there are questions being raised about three members of the House of Lords too on similar allegations. All these exposures have come through the work of investigative journalists who posed as representing countries or business organizations to lobby these members of parliament, who have been recorded as agreeing to do the lobbying work for heavy fees.
The this latest sleaze scandal to hit the headlines and affect the public trust in parliament in the UK, broke out with the media exposure on the BBC's Panorama programme of secretly filmed footage of Mr Mercer appearing to offer a Commons security pass to a fake Fijian firm that paid him £4,000 to ask parliamentary questions. Subsequently, there was media exposure of three members of the House of Lords agreeing to carry out Parliamentary work for payment.
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Laird, Labour's Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Cunningham who were named in the latter exposure deny wrongdoing. Yet, Lord Laird has resigned his party's whip pending the outcome of a review of his behaviour, the Ulster Unionist party has said, and the Labour Party has said Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie had been suspended from the party pending an investigation.
Undercover reporters filmed the men appearing to offer to help a fake solar energy company.
These grubby scandals involving political sleaze gives good reason for the UK public to be concerned about the practices in what is considered the Mother of Parliaments, and the quality of persons who occupy these legislative chambers and direct UK policy. This is not the first time that such activity by members of the UK parliament has been exposed, but the quick exposure of several acts of sleaze, and the delay in Prime Minister David Cameron taking action to control the activities in lobbying, has led to increased questions about the standards that prevail in the UK legislature.
As The Independent reported on June 3, “the [current] row erupted as new figures revealed that major companies – including financial institutions, internet giants and car manufacturers – are paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to Westminster special interest groups. They have spent more than £600,000 in support for just eight parliamentary all-party groups, an analysis by The Independent has established.
It was reported last night that 80 parliamentary passes issued by all-party groups had been revoked by the Commons authorities after it was discovered 40 were held by lobbyists.”
Sri Lankan concerns
While these certainly are serious matters for the British public, they also raise many concerns in foreign countries about the impact of such sleaze in politics in relation to developments in other countries, and how they influence UK policy about foreign countries and that of the “international community” too.
Sri Lanka has very good reason for such concerns because of the heavy lobbying that is done on a regular basis by pro-LTTE Tamil groups who are active in the UK. When members of the Commons give passes to special areas of the premises and ask questions about foreign countries on payments made for such work, and members of the Lords can even be suspect of agreeing to accept such sleaze funds to support non-existent companies, there are major issues about how much this lobbying process would have been responsible for the activities directed against Sri Lanka in recent months and years.
In the present context it would be most interesting to know more about the lobbying activities of the pro-LTTE groups in the UK. The exposure of sleaze lobbying in the Commons and Lords gives every indication that the frequent raising of Early Day Motions (EMD) and questions in the Commons as well as the arrangements for the meetings of pro-LTTE groups in Westminster House, could well have much more to do with corrupt lobbying than the interests of Tamil voters in UK electorates, as it is often claimed.
In recent times there has been an increase in lobbying activity by several pro-LTTE groups, who are often described wrongly as the Tamil Diaspora, which they are certainly not, but special interest groups that are keen on promoting the LTTE’s separatist agenda, heaping blame on the Sri Lanka authorities for the loss of lives in the final stages of the military operations to defeat the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization, which were carried out for a very humanitarian cause.
It will be interesting for the investigative journalists who have already exposed the sleaze in lobbying in the Commons and the Lords to look into the activities of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam ( TGTE), the Global Revival of Tamil Eelam ( GRTE), Tamils for Justice (TfJ) and such organization that are very close to members of parliament in the UK, and whether the heightened interest in developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Tamils, is one of genuine concern based on factual information or the result of corrupt lobbying, as now exposed in other matters.
One hopes that more light would be shed on how the special arrangements were made to celebrate an annual event of the TGTE within the House of Commons, with the participation of cross-party MPs, and well as the role of lobbyists in former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in trying to pressurize the Sri Lankan Government to stop the operations to defeat the LTTE, in the final stages of the battle; when it was well known that the LTTE was holding thousands of Tamils as human shields, who finally escaped to freedom at Nandikanal.
The response of Prime Minister David Cameron to this crisis in confidence in the Commons and Lords is to expedite bringing promised laws to establish a register of lobbyists. This is a much delayed promise, which has already come in for heavy criticism that it hardly meets the need for the control of corrupt lobbying. It has also led to questions about the Conservatives using this to control trade union contributions to the Labour Party.
Criticizing Cameron’s proposal for the registration of lobbyists, Oliver Wright wrote in The Independent of June 3: “But scratch the surface of the plans and it is apparent that none of the proposals will eliminate or even reduce political sleaze. Instead they are a smokescreen for a cynical attack on Labour-supporting unions (which are at least democratic) while leaving the lobbying industry untouched.
“The proposed statutory register of lobbyists will only cover a tiny fraction of the industry. It will not cover lobbyists who work directly for companies, trade associations or any of the other groups that spend large amounts of money trying to influence government policy. Only those lobbyists who work for third parties will be covered and even then the information they will have to publish will be paltry.
“They will not have to declare the meeting they arrange with ministers on behalf of their clients, the secret work done at party conferences will be off limits, and they need not publish what they are lobbying for – only their client list.
“The proposed legislation also appears not to tighten up the rules preventing peers and MP’s “hiring themselves out” for personal gain.
“Companies will still be able to “sponsor” all-party Parliamentary groups, to arrange receptions for commercial gain in Parliament and have access to the corridors of power without making it clear what they want from whom.”
In The Guardian, also of June 3, Sarah Wollaston, who provides advice on psychiatry on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists to all political parties in the UK states: “A register of paid lobbyists should be kept but it must also include the financial interests of those who provide advice to political parties, not just to government. But such a register would not solve the problem of the abuse of early day motions and parliamentary questions by vested interests. We need a clear process whereby the public can see who has helped to write these questions. This need not name individual constituents but could and should name any pressure group, union, business or even charity that asks for a question or EDM to be tabled or which contributes to its drafting.
“Many EDMs come directly from MPs themselves; there are some truly toe-curling examples of MPs sucking up to celebrities, stating the obvious or just trying to make it into their local papers. The trouble is that these petitions, which only a dwindling band of MPs will sign, are very expensive to administer. We should also be outraged that the latest scandal to hit parliament was paid for by you, the taxpayer. EDMs need a serious overhaul, along with the lobbyists who abuse them to justify their own jobs at public expense.”
The shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show: "I am angry as a citizen of the United Kingdom that this seems to be happening in Parliament and I am angry as a politician that the good name of the endeavour of politics - trying to find shared solutions to shared problems - is once again being smeared by what appears to be conduct that literally cannot be defended."
He added that "due process" had to be followed over each of the allegations, but said Labour wanted to see cross-party talks immediately with the government in relation to lobbying, "and how we can get it on a proper footing"…."We have got to ask deeper issues in relation to the House of Lords... in terms of making sure that people can have confidence as to the motive of the legislators, whether in the Commons or in the Lords."
The House of Lords code of conduct says peers cannot engage in "paid advocacy" - using their access to Parliament to make a profit.
Former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Sir Alistair Graham said the latest cases illustrated the "vulnerability of our democratic system to people who want to use money to gain access to influence our parliamentary processes".
There are obviously many loopholes in the proposed legislation that can easily benefit the pro-LTTE lobbyists who operate in the UK. It will be necessary to work with those genuinely interested in protecting democracy in the UK to ensure that these gaps are closed.
All of this is of much significance to Sri Lanka when one is aware of the huge amount of funds available to the pro-LTTE groups that operate in the UK, other European countries and the United States. Now that the lid has been opened wide in the UK on the operation of sleaze lobbying of politicians by special interest groups, we hope the promised legislation in the UK will be extensive enough, and that the probes by the media will fully expose the role of LTTE funds in the politics of the United Kingdom.