MPs’ double standard on transparency(3)

Many of the Labour MPs on the UK Treasury Select Committee believe the private equity industry needs to be more open and transparent. However, they take a very different attitude to their own Parliament.

Several of the UK MPs who have criticised the opaque and secretive nature of private equity in recent weeks have staunchly opposed attempts to make their own chamber more transparent and accountable. 

Four of the Labour MPs on the Treasury Select Committee, the UK government body currently investigating the industry, have repeatedly voted for a bill that exempts Parliament from the obligations of the Freedom of Information Bill, which would otherwise compel them to publish detailed information about their own activities in parliament, including expense claims.

The MPs concerned are committee chairman John McFall, Angela Eagle, George Mudie and Sion Simon – four of private equity’s most vocal critics in recent weeks.

At yesterday’s Committee meeting, McFall held aloft a copy of 3i’s annual report as an exemplar of great transparency, telling the three other buyout representatives – Carlyle’s Robert Easton, KKR’s Dominic Murphy and Permira’s Damon Buffini – that “you wouldn’t find yourself in the position that you are in, if you had an annual report like this.” While 3i’s Philip Yea – labelled “the acceptable face of private equity” by the panel – accepted the plaudits, Murphy and Easton both insisted that their firms publish an annual report on their website.

In May, the four MPs – along with 74 other Labour members and 18 Conservatives – defied the party whip to vote in favour of the exemption to the Freedom of Information Bill, which is now being passed to the House of Lords. Although the government affected neutrality on the issue, three Labour whips were present to vote against the exemption.

Critics said the bill was a hammer blow to the transparency of the lower house and to the credibility of Gordon Brown, who has promised to restore public trust by making politics more “open and accountable” when he becomes Prime Minister. MPs in favour of the exemption said it would risk their private correspondence being made public, but legal experts suggest that data protection laws would prevent that anyway.

The exemption will limit the information MPs are forced to disclose about their own expenses – which amounted to an average of £126,000 each for the four MPs concerned.

Indeed, the entire committee has displayed an ambivalent attitude towards increased transparency in Parliament. Just one of the 14 members – Labour MP Jim Cousins – has expressed strong support for the bill, while seven have declined to vote on the issue altogether.