Dark Money Investigations: Opinion

New lobbying ban wouldn’t have stopped Owen Paterson from taking second job

Yet again, Parliament’s standards watchdog has botched the rules for MPs – proving that they shouldn’t be allowed to police themselves

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Martin Williams
3 December 2021, 11.05am
Under the proposed ban, Owen Paterson would have been free to take on his lucrative second jobs
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Mark Makela / Alamy Stock Photo

In the aftermath of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal, new plans have been published to ban MPs from working as political consultants.

But how far will the changes go towards cleaning up politics? The answer is depressingly predictable.

It is unlikely that the new rules would have stopped Paterson – a former Tory MP who resigned in the wake of the scandal – from doing his lucrative second job. The ban covers a vague spectrum of ‘parliamentary’ consulting, which seems to relate only to lobbying Parliament itself. But this is not what Paterson did.

Instead, working for a private company, he targeted the Food Standards Agency and a government department. So although he breached existing rules, the proposed ban would not have stopped him taking the job in the first place.

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The failure to fix this crucial problem is unsurprising because the entire system for policing MPs is broken. From the rules to the regulators, MPs are repeatedly let off the hook.

The new rules were proposed by the Standards Committee – a group of MPs and lay members who, together, have consistently failed to be tough on sleaze. For years, there have been calls to ban MPs from having any second jobs at all, but the Standards Committee has never even seriously considered this idea.

Maybe there are good reasons for this. But, of course, MPs are the ones who stand to potentially benefit from Parliament’s lax rules.

When I gave evidence to the Standards Committee, three of its six MPs had been found in breach of the rules

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the committee, has himself earned more than £34,000 from outside interests since the start of November last year. Most of that was linked to books, media appearances or speaking events – including £2,000 for a two-hour webinar with Goldman Sachs.

Bryant has also declared an all-expenses-paid trip to Qatar, the Gulf state with an appalling human rights record. He went with the British-Qatari All-Party Parliamentary Group, and has said that “workers' rights reform” was discussed. But his expenses were covered by the Qatari embassy, to the tune of £7,357.

Another member of the Standards Committee, Tory MP Alberto Costa, is the director of a company that is not listed in his register of interests. The company is understood to be a property management firm for a flat he owns in North London with his wife. But thanks to the lax rules, he may be perfectly entitled to keep quiet about it.

The Standards Committee has often proved to be an embarrassment in Westminster. When I gave evidence to the committee in 2016, three of the six MPs sitting in front of me had themselves been found in breach of the rules – including the then chairman, Sir Kevin Barron.

Likewise, the previous commissioner for standards (who is supposed to be independent) was accused of being “too permissive”. Her independence was called into question when it emerged that a Conservative MP she exonerated over lobbying allegations had sat on the very panel that appointed her.

Loopholes

More shocking, perhaps, are the rules themselves – which manage to be laughably lax and absurdly complex at the same time.

For instance, if an MP is paid a lump sum of £150, they must declare it. But a £200 payment does not need to be declared if it’s divided into two instalments of £100.

It is also within the rules to keep quiet about shareholdings worth less than £70,000. Even if you own a million pounds worth of shares in the same sector of the economy, you can avoid declaring it by simply splitting it up into several smaller investments.

And landlord MPs must state if they own property worth more than £100,000. But they are not required to provide details of the property’s exact location or even how much it’s worth. So, if an MP is lobbying for changes that would benefit their property investments, we often have no way of finding out.

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Banning MPs from working as political consultants fails to answer the question at the heart of the scandal: is being an MP a full-time job?

You might think that only the sneakiest of MPs would exploit these loopholes, but Parliament operates in a culture that actively tells MPs not to declare things unless they absolutely have to.

When the Conservative MP Richard Drax was investigated for breaching rules over his financial interests, he said: “The registrar advised me to disclose less information rather than more.”

Questioned about why he had not declared an inherited property, Drax said: “I was advised that the appropriate time to add the property to the register was when it was legally transferred to me, and not before.

“The registrar said she would need to go away and think about it because it would affect my fellow MPs if they were expected to declare assets before they were legally transferred to them.”

Some of the allegations against Drax were eventually upheld, but the ongoing lack of transparency means he is still perfectly entitled to omit important details about his extensive property portfolio from the Register of Interests.

And the punishment for breaking the rules? Usually, there isn’t one.

Paterson’s lobbying was so egregious that he was threatened with a 30-day suspension from the Commons (although given that he earned more money outside Parliament than as an MP, such a sentence appears rather paltry).

But most of the time breaches are simply ‘rectified’ – with nothing more than a bit of paperwork to show for it. Typically, the MP will write a short letter of apology and correct their declarations. It’s hardly enough to act as a deterrent.

Fixing the system

Ironically, the standards system has been vehemently defended recently, despite its many flaws.

When Paterson was found guilty of lobbying, the government tried to tear up the entire rulebook in a bid to save him. As a result, opposition MPs and transparency campaigners sprung to defend the process that had rightly ruled against him.

But in reality, the system is not fit for purpose. After all, we should never expect MPs to be able to police themselves.

The punishment for MPs breaking the rules? Usually there isn’t one

Government ministers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is currently under investigation by the standards commissioner, have previously complained that MPs facing investigation do not get a chance to appeal the verdict. But in reality, the reverse is true.

MPs who disagree with the commissioner’s decision can appeal to the Standards Committee. But members of the public who complain about MPs have absolutely no right of appeal. Once a complaint is filed, they are kept totally in the dark until a verdict is reached – sometimes for more than a year. And when a decision has been made, they are unable to challenge it.

However, there is a solution to all this. After the Expenses Scandal in 2008, the problem was deemed so big that a completely independent body was set up to deal with MPs’ expenses. As a result, the controversy surrounding the issue has diminished.

Originally, this independent regulator was intended to deal with sleaze and corruption allegations as well. But ultimately, parliament stayed in charge, with MPs continuing to have a role in setting and enforcing their own rules.

Perhaps it is finally time to make this system fully independent. It may not provide an immediate fix to all the problems, but at least we could rest assured that MPs are no longer fixing the game.

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