On 8 November, the SNP MP Pete Wishart wrote to the Metropolitan Police asking them to investigate donations, each of £3m, made by former Conservative Party treasurers and their subsequent elevation to the House of Lords. The police responded on 12 November saying they had insufficient information on which to justify an investigation.
Cash for honours
The legislation under which Wishart had sought an investigation is the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1923. The Act makes it unlawful to accept or agree to accept for themselves or another or 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 to any person, or otherwise in connection with such a grant.”
The Act was passed in response to the Liberal prime minister Lloyd-George’s cash-for-honours scandal of 1922. He had established a going rate for honours, with the money going to party funds. According to Wikipedia, the final straw was the 1922 Queen’s birthday honours list, which included:
“Sir Joseph Robinson, a South African gold and diamond magnate who had been convicted of fraud and fined half a million pounds a few months earlier, Sir William Vestey, a multi-millionaire meat importer notorious for his tax evasion, Samuel Waring, who had been accused of war profiteering and Archibald Williamson whose oil firm had allegedly traded with the enemy during the war.”
Not only did these appointments create opportunities for power and influence but they also provided a route back to respectability after public censure.
Attempts to prosecute cash-for-honours offences
There have been four attempts to use the law since then.
- In 1933, the first and only conviction was secured, against Maundy Gregory who was attempting to sell Vatican knighthoods in the UK.
- In 2006, after a 19-month investigation and at a cost of £1.4m, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that they had insufficient evidence to prosecute members of Tony Blair’s government who had nominated peerages for wealthy party donors whose loans had underpinned the election victory.
- The Met is currently dealing with a complaint lodged in September 2021 regarding Prince Charles’ aide, Michael Fawcett, who allegedly gave £1.5m to the prince’s charities in exchange for a knighthood and citizenship.
- This latest case involving Tory party treasurers, which the police have indicated they will not pursue further unless more evidence comes to light.
Wishart’s allegations stem from a Sunday Times article, which said that 15 of the 16 previous party treasurers were offered a seat in the Lords having each donated £3m to the Conservative Party. In the case of one previous treasurer, Peter Cruddas, the appointment was pushed through by Boris Johnson even after opposition from the Lords appointments commission. Cruddas had already been found to have offered access to ministers for party donations in 2012.
Scandal in plain sight
One ex-minister told the Times it was a “scandal in plain sight”, and a former party chairperson said, “The truth is the entire political establishment knows this happens and they do nothing about it … The most telling line is, once you pay your £3 million, you get your peerage”.
A row of 15 (almost) consecutive cases is indicative of a strongly embedded pattern, a pattern that is very evident to any new applicant for the role, especially when the donations cease once the donors are ennobled.
The treasurer will know precisely how much money was put into the Conservative coffers and the expected time lapse between elevation to the Lords and the due date for payment. Nothing need ever be said overtly. It may be noted that previous treasurers had always been given a place in the Lords, that the post only went to those possessing extreme wealth and that previous incumbents not only raised substantial amounts of money but also chipped in themselves.
Custom and practice are achieving what, in other circumstances, might have to be clearly articulated. It is the embedded nature of the practice that may be at the heart of the difficulty the police face. There may be little or no evidence to prove corruption as it is unlikely that any of the practices were recorded. They did not need to be.
Does this corruption extend to the police?
Comments in the press and on social media indicate that a sizeable portion of the public believe that both the government and the police are corrupt in the handling of this case and that Cressida Dick may have suppressed an investigation with a view to her own future ennoblement. The police did not take long (less than a week) to determine there was no basis for an investigation.
Either the police have been too ready to close the enquiry and pressure needs to be brought to bear to re-open it, or proving corruption in cases like this is impossible and new means need to be found to restrict the opportunities for it in the future.