THE BLOG

Lib Dem Lord's Admissions Reopen the Cash for Honours Scandal

21/11/2014 09:44 GMT | Updated 20/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The admission by former Liberal Democrat Party Treasurer Lord Razzall, that he was offered cash for peerages "several times a year" over a period of twelve years but failed to report any of these criminal offences threatens to take the lid back off one Westminster's most unseemly and nocuous can of worms of recent decades: cash for honours.

Rather than going to the police, the peer admitted in a BBC radio interview on Wednesday, that he would politely refuse the money offered by wealthy would-be-donors in exchange for peerages. "Everybody knows what you have to say, which is, "'I'm terribly sorry. That's a criminal offence. Would you mind keeping quiet,'" the peer explained.

Yet by keeping quiet, Lord Razzall was allowing scores of criminal offences to go unpunished.

Under British law it is illegal to request a peerage in exchange for party donations and it is extraordinary that Lord Razzall, who worked as a solicitor for nearly 30 years, was unaware of this.

Corruptly soliciting advantage from a public servant is criminalised under a raft of anti-corruption legislation and there is even a specific law - the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 - which states that it is a criminal offence for someone to offer "any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour".

But when asked why he failed to report the crimes to the police, Lord Razzall laughingly told presenter BBC Sarah Brett that "no offence had been committed" because no peerage had been procured. When pressed as to whether the attempt to buy an honour was itself a criminal offence Lord Razzall, seemed less than certain. "No. I don't think it's an offence, so no."

In some American states, including Connecticut and Alaska, the failure by public officials to report bribery attempts is itself a crime. Although Lord Razzall did not commit an offence under British law, he clearly could have done more to challenge this illegal behaviour and in so doing, prevent its widespread commission in the future.

In the interview Lord Razzall describes an alarming situation in Westminster politics where offers of cash for honours are commonplace and seemingly never reported to the police. "Anybody who has been a party treasurer of any of the three parties will tell you, if they're honest, that there are numerous people who come to you and said, you know, I'll give you a million pounds if I can go in the House of Lords". There's nobody to whom that hasn't happened" he said.

"In politics a lot of people particularly give big money because they want something," said the peer who was Treasurer for the Lib Dems for 12 years from 1988 until 2000. "They either want to influence the party's policies, or they want access to the leader, or in a lot of cases they want some sort of honour, which of course is a criminal offence. Unless you restrict the amount of money that can come into the political process, you will always have quasi-corruption" he said.

Lord Razzalls descriptions echo some of the concerns of former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott who described in his resignation letter last May his frustration at the failure of his efforts to "expose and end cash for peerages in all parties, including our own.'

Whilst the Committee for Standards in Public Life cannot comment on individual cases its former chair, Sir Alistair Graham, came out in the Daily Telegraph today saying he believed Lord Razzall had "a civic duty to report people who are attempting to break the law." Ken Ritchie, former Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, described the revelations as "completely outrageous" and suggested that "Lord Razzall must have been aware of the dubious legality of such offers". A Liberal Democrat spokesperson deflected questions saying: "We are not aware of any of the specific conversations Lord Razzall discussed."

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Lord Razzall's interview was his inability to see that by not reporting illegal approaches he had done anything remotely wrong. "All I can say is that a lot of treasurers would have to spend a lot of time at the police station if we had to report anyone who said that to us" he said.

But it is only when MPs do start to report such illegal practices - and we come down hard on those that don't - that they will be stamped out once and for all.