Last week LabourList was the first to report that Simon Hughes MP is under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards amid claims he failed to fully declare a high value donation received by his local Liberal Democrat Party. The original complaint made against Hughes to the Commissioner included, among other things, reference to a £10,000 donation made to Bermondsey and Old Southwark Liberal Democrats in May 2012. You can find the registration of the donation on the Electoral Commission website here.
One aspect of this affair has not yet been reported in the press and internet coverage. At the heart of this is the Liberal Democrat approach to politics – trying to be all things to all people. In this particular case it is Simon Hughes’ inconsistent approach to the issue of banning cash payments for scrap metal.
Cash payments for metal at recycling yards have recently been banned under new laws aimed at reducing cable theft. Back in January of 2012 Simon Hughes issued two press releases making reference to this proposal, both of which can still be seen on his website. The first issued on the 9th January 2012 is headlined “Simon Hughes MP meets Home Office Minister to combat metal theft epidemic” and includes the following:
“Measures proposed include amending the Scrap Metal Merchants Act of 1964, by banning cash payments as proposed in an ongoing e-petition signed by Simon Hughes”
And the quote:
“’Tighter regulations on scrap metal dealerships, including banning cash payments, may be necessary. Such changes should not be seen as an unnecessary burden on small businesses. Scrap metal theft is the real burden on businesses and communities as it costs our economy £700 million a year.’”
Stick with me. There is a point to all of this. The second press release issued on the 31st January is entitled “Simon Hughes MP welcomes new government measures to crack down on metal theft”. It contains the following:
“Banning cash payments will give the police greater enforcement capability, through improved monitoring of scrap metal dealers and their suppliers… ‘I am pleased that the Home Secretary has taken on board the proposals that I and many of my colleagues have made on this issue’”
So Hughes has gone from not just being in favour of banning cash payments, but also giving the distinct impression that he has been partly responsible for it becoming government policy.
What is curious is that by the time the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill has reached its Committee Stage on the 11th September 2012 Hughes gives a very different impression of his views. Having read his contributions in full I would say that most people listening to him might think he had developed serious concerns about banning cash payments. The full exchanges can be seen here.
In fairness to him, he does make it clear that he is putting the arguments of Tom Pratt (the owner of Southwark Metals), and he does acknowledge that “I have argued the contrary, so I am not adopting his argument but just asking the question.”
But he also says:
“[Mr Pratt} asks, “Why should we be singled out as an industry? Loads and loads of people pay in cash for all sorts of things. That’s how lots of business is done.” So I would be grateful for a considered reflection on the wisdom of going down this road, as opposed to going down the roads that he and other people in the industry are apparently suggesting.”
And goes on to say:
“We should be careful about legislating for a particular solution in a particular industry if we do not understand what the implications are elsewhere.”
The strongest endorsement he gives to the policy that he had only recently been strongly in favour of is to say that it “…may be the best available solution.”
There is something very typical about Simon Hughes’ behaviour here. Instead of considering the issues and taking a principled stand he flip-flops between two opposing views. The resulting impression is that of a politician who doesn’t really care about the issue at all and falls short of the straightforwardness that people rightly expect from their representatives.
And that’s before the question of the donation to Simon Hughes’ local constituency party is added into this mix.
Anyone who has come up against the Liberal Democrats at a local level will, no doubt, be familiar with this approach. In Southwark we have spent the last two years highlighting the difference between what Simon Hughes says at a local level and how he votes in Parliament. Locally he has been very outspoken about Coalition policies on social housing, the NHS, police cuts and welfare reform yet he has voted them all through in Parliament.
As a local councillor I’m often approached about less grand concerns. But if I’ve taken a public stand on an issue, based on a strongly held belief or principle, then I find the best approach to anyone who lobbies me to the contrary is to tell it how it is. That whilst I respect their views, I’ve got to be honest to them and to myself. That on this particular issue, our views are at odds and that I’m unable to fight their corner. What I most certainly would not do, is go on to represent, at length and in public, an argument that I fundamentally disagreed with.
So the question arises, having received such a large donation from a scrap metal company in May 2012, why does Simon Hughes give such a different emphasis to his views in the Committee stage of the Bill to that given in his January press releases?
It is a question which takes on all the more significance when we consider that the complaint made to the Commissioner alleges that this large donation was not fully and properly registered by the MP. These are issues which, to say the least, will need to be addressed.
Gavin Edwards is a Labour Councillor for Peckham Rye Ward in Southwark