Target of ‘sting’ operation may have to leave office if police decide to launch investigation
Scotland Yard could launch an investigation into potential breaches of the 2010 Bribery Act by Tory MP Patrick Mercer. The Observer understands that at least one MP is preparing a complaint that could spark a Met probe into whether Mercer has broken the law, amid allegations that he tabled parliamentary questions on behalf of a lobbying firm paying him thousands of pounds.
The revelation raises the prospect that Mercer could be subjected to a criminal investigation, the first into an MP since the act was introduced. Those found guilty under the act can be subject to prison sentences running up to 10 years if the case goes to a full trial.
A potential defence against any charge could be parliamentary privilege – the right of MPs to ask questions without fear of being subject to legal action. However, if police were to launch an inquiry, it would raise questions about whether Mercer could remain in office until the next election. He has said he plans to stand down in 2015 and has already resigned the whip to “save my party embarrassment” and referred himself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
Mercer, MP for Newark, is seeking legal advice following a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama. He was approached by reporters posing as lobbyists representing businesses seeking to end Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and signed a £2,000-a-month contract. Fiji was suspended in 2009 over human rights concerns and a lack of democracy.
It is alleged that, after being paid £4,000, Mercer tabled five parliamentary questions about Fiji drafted by the bogus lobbyists. He also proposed an Early Day Motion (EDM) – a parliamentary device used to draw attention to issues – saying there was “no justification for Fiji’s continued suspension from the Commonwealth”. It is also alleged that Mercer agreed to help establish an all-party group on Fiji and to provide a parliamentary pass for a “representative” of the fictional Fijian client.
Panorama released a clip apparently showing Mercer telling an undercover reporter: “I do not charge a great deal for these things. I would normally come out at £500 per half day, so £1,000 a day.”
Mercer has been a critic of the prime minister over national security. Over the years he has taken on a number of consultancy roles, which he has declared in the register of members interests.
Mercer’s register of interests show he does paid work for energy, security and engineering companies and has asked questions that relate to all three of their industries, though there is no suggestion he was paid by any of them to do so.
The MPs’ code of conduct states that “it is wholly incompatible with the rule that any member should take payment for speaking in the House. Nor may a member, for payment, vote, ask a parliamentary question, table a motion, introduce a bill or table or move an amendment to a motion or bill or urge colleagues or ministers to do so.” Members are also required to register financial interests, such as outside earnings.
The affair has shone light on the use of EDMs as a way of attracting parliamentary attention to a cause. Mercer’s was signed by four MPs including Mike Hancock, who has been absent from parliament due to illness. Hancock said he had had no dealings with Mercer over the motion which had been sent to him by his office staff, along with several others, and that he had decided to sign it.
“We’ve got so many Fijian soldiers in the British armed forces that I just felt it was right that Fiji should get back in to the Commonwealth as soon as possible,” Hancock said. “I wasn’t approached by Patrick Mercer.”
Labour MP Sir Alan Meale also signed the EDM: “I just saw it and thought it was reasonable. But I’ve never been to any meetings or anything. I just read it on the order paper.” Labour MP Jim Dobbin, another signatory, said he had no contact with Mercer before signing. David Crausby, a Labour MP, also signed. There is no suggestion of impropriety by the motion’s four signatories.
A proposed statutory register of lobbyists was included in the coalition agreement to deal with what the prime minister described before the 2010 election as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. It has so far failed to make it into the government’s legislative programme.
“Our coalition agreement committed us to clean up lobbying with a statutory register and code,” said former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, Lord Oakeshott. “How many more scandals have to stain British politics to shame the Tories into honouring that promise?”Jon Trickett, Labour’s shadow minister for the cabinet office, called on Cameron to act. “We have seen no action from this Tory-led government, despite David Cameron himself warning that lobbying was the next great scandal waiting to happen,” he said.
“The coalition agreement promised action, and cross-party support was offered. However, scandals around ‘cash for access’ continue to be present at the heart of this government.”