Ahead of his appearance at the Cardiff Book Festival, investigative journalist Martin Williams talks to Dylan Moore about his ‘journey to the dark heart of British politics’ writing Parliament Ltd, an excoriating expose of the hidden financial interests that are undermining democracy.
It seems your hypothesis – essentially, there’s something rotten at the heart of our democracy – was borne out time and again by your research, but were you genuinely shocked by anything?
Yes, I think people expect there to be a couple of dodgy politicians here and there, but it gets scary when there are such deeply-rooted links between MPs and the private sector. Westminster is way too cosy with the arms trade, the banking sector and other industries. The result is not just that MPs do stuff we don’t like, but the entire democratic process gets distorted. Once you realise how many politicians have lucrative second jobs in the City, for instance, you begin to realise why they’ve failed to adequately reform the banks following the financial crisis. And I find it shocking how much politicians are allowed to get away with. The authorities in Westminster are rubbish at cracking down on these things and MPs are given almost free reign to do what they like.
Which, to your mind, of the book’s revelations are the most serious?
Individual cases might grab your attention, but actually the most serious problem is the system itself. The regulations in Parliament are way too lax. For instance, I discovered that 99 politicians have corporate links to tax havens – but there is no rule against that. There are also lots of Peers who claim expenses just for turning up at the House of Lords, without ever speaking or voting. But we can’t expel or prosecute them because Parliament has failed to properly rule against it.
Of course, there were some cases that stood out. One MP didn’t declare she was a partner in a scheme that helps non-doms – despite running to be chair of the Public Accounts Committee. And a baroness in the House of Lords has just been reprimanded by authorities for failing to declare her business interests, which I revealed in my book. She had given a speech in Parliament about helping private investors benefit from university intellectual property, without mentioning she had just been given a job at a firm whose slogan was: “Helping clients profit from university intellectual property”! She said it was just a mistake.
Perhaps the most worrying issue is when large numbers of politicians have similar financial interests. Housing is a good example: so many MPs earn money as landlords, it’s hardly surprising that the law often seems to be in their favour. It’s a big problem for Parliament (and for democracy), but nobody is doing anything about it.
I was surprised by how frequently funny I found Parliament Ltd. I found myself enjoying the black humour and the bitter irony of the fact that so many of your interviewees were so brazen about their double standards because they’d become normalised, invisible. There must have been many times you had to laugh to stop yourself from crying, or screaming… but were there any occasions where you just thought ‘this is just so outrageous it’s funny’?
Politics is often presented in a really dry, boring way. My book is a serious investigation, but I’ve also tried to bring out the more funny and outrageous aspects of it. Westminster is so outdated and ridiculous that sometimes you can’t help but laugh. My favourite discovery was that the person in charge of transparency in Parliament is, herself, exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act! The irony of it seems to be lost on MPs!
You co-host a live comedy show that combines investigative journalism with stand-up comedy. How does that work?
The idea is that we break an exclusive investigation live on stage, but make it funny. Think of it like Panorama with jokes. A lot of political comedy satirises things that are in the news, but we wanted to break the news ourselves. We’ve already investigated loads of different stuff – from police corruption to religious extremism. In August we did a run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe which was great fun.
You encourage your readers to take up their own investigations and campaigns for transparency and accountability. Where would you recommend we start?
One of the most startling things I discovered writing this book is just how little MPs are kept in check by the authorities. It’s not just that the rules are lax – even when rules are there, there’s often nobody checking that MPs are sticking to them. So lots of potentially controversial stuff can quite easily slip under the radar. If people know what their MPs are up to, that could be a small start towards pushing for improvements. Also, once you start researching this stuff, you’ll get hooked.
Checking the official Register of Interests is a good start – but remember, it’s really unreliable. Next, try looking them up on Companies House to check what directorships they have, or search their expenses claims published by IPSA. And if you find something that looks dodgy, give me a shout!
In Wales, our much younger institutions are perhaps slightly less tarnished than the centuries of accumulated grime built up at Westminster. Are we naïve to imagine that Assembly Members don’t have similar private interests that affect their politics?
I haven’t investigated the Welsh Assembly, so I’m not sure quite how clean the system is (my book focuses on Westminster). But it’d be naïve to assume it’s perfect. It might be true that it doesn’t suffer from the culture of greed and entitlement to quite the extent that Westminster does. And some of the rules seem a bit better, too. But the question is, how well are those rules enforced? One problem with devolution can be that politicians are sometimes subject to less scrutiny, because it concerns a far smaller pool of people. I would imagine that if fewer people have heard of you, and follow what you do, then it’s probably easier to get away with more. That said, I don’t know for sure. I’d love it if Wales could lead the way on accountability and show Westminster how it’s done.
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