A senior Conservative who denied he had ever lobbied MPs and peers on behalf of a Caribbean tax haven had signed a £12,000 per month contract that stated he would do so.
Lord Blencathra had previously been investigated by the Lords Commissioner for Standards for his work on behalf of the Cayman Islands and had insisted in written evidence to the inquiry that none of his work involved lobbying Parliament. He told the Commissioner he would not have agreed to do this.
But a copy of a contract signed by the former Conservative Party Chief Whip and passed to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism lists ‘making representations to … Members of Parliament’ amongst services to be provided.
Lord Blencathra insisted the clause was one of several which were never acted upon, that he had not carried out any lobbying on behalf of the Cayman Government and that what he had told the Commissioner was correct.
‘My compliance with the law or Lords Rules takes precedence over anything which was in my contract,’ he said.
‘I made clear that I would not be lobbying Parliament or MPs. Indeed even that initial contract made no mention of lobbying. That was firmly understood between us.’
Lord Blencathra also said that he had the contract amended in 2012 to ‘remove all reference to lobbying UK MPs and Parliament.’
But the Labour MP Paul Flynn, who put in the original complaint to the Lords standards authorities, said he did not see how Lord Blencathra could ‘reconcile his defence with this contract’.
‘I will be contacting the Lords authorities and asking them to look again at this. It is intolerable that he is acting as both a legislator and lobbying on behalf of a country that makes income from the tax avoidance industry.’
Peer told Commissioner ‘none of my work involves lobbying Parliament’
The Bureau revealed in April 2012 that Lord Blencathra’s role as director of the Cayman Islands Government Office in the UK included lobbying and that he had written to the Chancellor George Osborne to complain about air passenger taxes on flights to the Cayman.
He had also approached MPs who had criticised the Islands.
Mr Flynn asked the Commissioner to consider whether Lord Blencathra had broken the Lords Code of Conduct, which bans peers from ‘paid advocacy’ [see box] and offering Parliamentary services for gain.
Lord Blencathra responded to the Commissioner’s inquiry by insisting he did not lobby Parliament and would not do so.
‘None of my work involves lobbying Parliament or seeking to influence either House. I made that clear when I took on the role that I would not do that,’ he said. He added that his job did not involve ‘using my position to influence Parliament’.
He added: ‘I have never sought to gain advantage for the Cayman Islands Government in Parliament nor with MPs nor peers.’
The Commissioner for Standards subsequently concluded, in November 2012, that there was ‘no evidence that Lord Blencathra exercised parliamentary influence on behalf of the Cayman Islands Government Office in the UK.’
The Commissioner added: ‘Equally, no evidence has been presented that he provided parliamentary advice or services.’
Peer’s contract was not examined as part of the Standards Commissioner’s investigation
The evidence scrutinised by the Commissioner as part of this investigation did not include Lord Blencathra’s contract with the Cayman Islands Government, even though the Commissioner had the power to request a copy.
Since then a copy of the contract, signed in November 2011, between Lord Blencathra’s company, Two Lions Consultancy Ltd, and the Finance Ministry of the Cayman Islands Government, has come to light.
Under the contract, the company’s responsibilities included: ‘Promoting the Cayman Islands’ interests in the UK and Europe by liaising with and making representations to UK ministers, the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords.’
Lord Blencathra said his contract required him to provide 14 services but several of them were never acted upon.
‘This was the first time a contract of this nature was drawn up and the [then] Premier wanted every possible item included. I made clear that I would not be lobbying Parliament or MPs…that was firmly understood between us.’
Following the Standards Commissioner’s decision in November 2012 the contract was amended.
‘I had it amended back in 2012 to remove all reference to lobbying UK MPs and Parliament,’ he explained. ‘The only mention of lobbying is in relation to the EU.’
Under the changed contract he was still responsible for ‘promoting the Cayman Islands’ interests with respect to financial services in the UK and Europe by liaising with and making representations to key governmental stakeholders’.
A second new clause required him to ‘assist with lobbying efforts on financial services arising out of EU directives’.
Other duties common to both contracts included:
*’supervision of the advance arrangements for representatives of the CIG (Cayman Islands Government) and various departments of CIG on official visits to the UK and arranging meetings with important persons in the UK government”.
*presenting the Premier of the Cayman Islands and other ministers to the British government ‘in the best possible light’
* ‘assisting in enhancing relations’ between Cayman’s ministers and the FCO.
*’provision to the CIG of information and advice which will enable them to formulate policy approaches to the UK government.’
Peer discussed guaranteeing access to Foreign Office
Lord Blencathra also told the Standards Commissioner in 2012 that his ‘ambassadorial’ role involved liaising with ministers and passing messages.
But he stressed that ’the Premier can write or contact UK ministers at any time and does not need me to act as interlocutor or get him access to ministers’.
‘I do not need to fix a meeting so that the Premier of the Cayman Islands can get access to lobby a minister. He can get access practically any time he wants,’ he said.
The Bureau has seen copies of private emails sent by Lord Blencathra about his contract prior to its signing. The emails, which were obtained by the Cayman press, include discussions about how the peer might ‘guarantee access’ to the FCO.
In one message to Dax Basdeo, chief officer in the Cayman Ministry of Finance, sent during contract negotiations Lord Blencathra says: ‘The only way I can guarantee access to all the key people in the FCO and elsewhere is to be designated as the “official” Cayman Islands Government “Political Director”.
No matter how good I may be and even with the title “Lord” I need that endorsement.’
The Code states: ‘The prohibition from accepting payment in return for parliamentary services means that Members may not, in return for payment or other incentive or reward, assist outside organisations or persons in influencing Parliament.
This includes seeking by means of participation in proceedings of the House to confer exclusive benefit upon the organisation (the ‘no paid advocacy rule’); or making use of their position to arrange meetings with a view to any person lobbying Members of either House, ministers or officials.
A Member may never provide parliamentary services in return for payment or other incentive or reward.’
The no-paid advocacy rule
Under this rule, a distinction is drawn between advocacy and advice. Advocacy in return for payment is prohibited. Giving advice in return for payment is permitted.
When ruling on Lord Blencathra’s case, the Standards Commissoner referred to examples of what is permitted and what is prohibited under the rule given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life by a previous Clerk of the Parliaments in November 1995 and re-iterated in 2009. The Clerk said peers were barred from providing the following services for gain:
- speaking in debates
- tabling, supporting and moving amendments
- asking Parliamentary Questions
- lobbying Ministers and other members of the House
- acting as host at functions in the Palace of Westminster
The Commissioner said there was no evidence Lord Blencathra had engaged in any of these activities although he acknowledged the letter to George Osborne was ‘was clearly an attempt to lobby the Chancellor’.
The letter was not a breach of the Code, the Commissioner ruled, because the letter was ‘clearly sent in Lord Blencathra’s role as Director of the CIG Office’, he had been ‘open and transparent and his position was self-evident to the Chancellor’.
Following the Standards Commissioner’s report on Lord Blencathra, the sub-committee on Lords conduct noted that part of the Lords Code of Conduct might need clarifying.
The Code bans a peer from ‘making use of [his or her] position to arrange meetings with a view to any personlobbying Members of either House, ministers or officials.’
But the sub-committee pointed out that the Code ‘does not say in terms whether or not members may themselves lobby ministers or officials in return for payment or other incentive or reward.’
This year, the Committee for Privileges and Conduct recommended that the rules be changed to stop peers from lobbying Parliament or government for gain.
The Committee, which referenced Lord Blencathra, added: ‘We do not believe this loophole was intended when the prohibition on providing parliamentary services in return for payment was introduced in the 2010 Code.
In addition, recent cases on which we have reported indicate that some members seemed to believe that providing parliamentary services in return for payment is within the rules so long as it is registered and, where appropriate, declared.
‘That is evidently not the case.’
Lord Blencathra told the Bureau he had asked for his contract to be amended further to reflect the new rule.
A spokesman for the Standards Commissioner said he could consider whether to investigate, should any new complaint be made against Lord Blencathra.
‘(These) documents have not previously been received by the Commissioner at the time of or since his investigation into Lord Blencathra,’ he said.
‘Evidence he received during his investigation into Lord Blencathra was published with the report on that case.
‘If a complaint is received with new evidence about Lord Blencathra and his work for the Cayman Islands Government Office in the UK, the Commissioner will consider whether it is appropriate to open a new investigation.’
Lord Blencathra ‘opens doors’
In January 2013, the then Premier of Cayman Julianna O’Connor-Connelly defended Lord Blencathra’s £12,000-pcm (plus VAT) contract in a news conference.
‘He has that capacity to open doors which I haven’t seen anyone, perhaps since [former Cayman Islands] Governor [Thomas] Russell, able to open in the UK,’ she said.
Lord Blencathra’s activities last year included contributing to a Lords debate in which he called for air passenger duty on flights to the Overseas Territories to be scrapped.
This is the same topic on which he had previously written to the Chancellor George Osborne on behalf of the Cayman Islands Government.
In the Lords debate he also said: ‘I worry at times that the UK government may foist too many regulatory burdens on them [the Overseas Territories] which may make them uncompetitive.’
He prefaced his speech by declaring that he was a remunerated representative of the Cayman Islands Government in the UK but was not speaking on behalf of the Islands.
The peer had told the Bureau in 2012 there was no possibility of a conflict of interest between his role as director of the Cayman Islands Government Office in London and his standing as a peer able to voting on and debating legislation affecting the Islands.
He said: ‘I have been meticulous in ensuring that I have no conflict of interest between that role and my duties in the Lords.’
In January this year the peer turned his attention to promoting Cayman Enterprise City (CEC), a special economic area in which no income tax, corporation tax or capital gains tax is payable.
He assisted at an event held at his office in London which aimed at persuading UK technology and media firms to set up shop in the new zone.
The Cayman Islands Government has been heavily marketing the tax-free zone to international biotech, new media, outsourcing, commodities and IT start-ups and medium-sized companies it hopes will re-locate there.
If the London drive was successful it could mean jobs and taxable income moving from the UK to Cayman.
‘Those who attended were genuinely interested and saw the benefits of both Cayman as a pro-business jurisdiction and the CEC zone as a mechanism to easily establish a presence there,” said Lord Blencathra in a press release about the London event.
‘We look forward to working with CEC on promoting the benefits of this jurisdiction to the UK market.’