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5 ways MPs’ new rulebook could let dodgy politicians off the hook

The Standards Committee says its proposals are ‘robust’. Here are some reasons that they aren't

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Martin Williams
24 May 2022, 9.30pm
The new rules come in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal.
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New rules designed to clean up British politics have been published by a cross-party group of MPs.

The Standards Committee says its “robust new measures” will “improve checks and balances on MPs” – and stop politicians abusing the system.

It’s true that some of the proposals are a positive step forward. But the committee’s report fails to take action on some of the most important issues at stake, leaving loopholes that could be exploited by unscrupulous MPs.

1. No limits on second jobs

This review happened in the wake of several high-profile scandals last year, which raised questions about MPs’ second jobs.

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In one case, the former attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, had been casting parliamentary votes remotely from the Caribbean during lockdown – while doing a lucrative second job as a barrister. Analysis showed that Cox had earned at least £6m from his outside work since he became an MP.

This sparked calls for limits on MPs’ outside interests. Even the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said MPs who were “prioritising outside interests over their constituents” should be “investigated and appropriately punished”.

But today’s report fails to take action, saying the issue is too complicated. “We recommend that no restrictions should be introduced on the time that a Member can spend on outside work,” it says, “or on income that they might receive from it.”

This decision follows lobbying from politicians, who made a series of bizarre claims to defend their second jobs. One said they needed the extra money “to make ends meet” – despite already earning at least £84,000 as an MP.

The committee’s report says MPs should be free to do what they want, and the public can vote them out if they don’t like it. This is better than letting parliamentary authorities decide, it says.

But this is strange, given that authorities already get to decide plenty of other rules for MPs, like banning them from certain types of work.

2. Job contracts kept private

Under the new rules, some MPs with second jobs might have to give their contract to parliamentary authorities. But the contracts will be kept secret from the public.

This is at odds with the idea expressed elsewhere in the report that voters can decide what’s appropriate, instead of leaving it to unelected authorities.

In the old days, some MPs had to place their job contracts in the parliamentary archive, free for anyone to go and read. But today’s report shuts the door on public scrutiny.

Instead, the only person able to see the contracts will be the unelected Commissioner for Standards, Katheryn Stone – whose appointment was approved by MPs themselves.

The public will have to trust Stone’s judgement, without having the chance to find out details about their MP’s second job.

3. MPs can still work as lobbyists

The recommendations include some good steps to crack down on lobbying. But they don’t go far enough.

MPs will finally be banned from giving “parliamentary advice” in exchange for money. But plenty of lobbying takes place outside parliament. For instance, the former minister Owen Paterson was found guilty of lobbying after he targeted the Food Standards Agency and a government department.

The proposals would also ban MPs from “participating in proceedings or approaches” to MPs, ministers and public officials, to lobby on behalf of a private company.

Again, this is a good step forward, but falls short of an outright lobbying ban. While the rules remain ambiguous, it may still be possible for MPs to lobby the private sector, charities, NGOs and foreign governments.

More importantly, the rules will be very hard to enforce because there’s no way of checking what MPs are doing in their second jobs. By failing to take tough action, there is a grey area that dodgy MPs could exploit.

4. No checks on MPs’ declarations

At the moment, the Register of MPs’ Interests is a mess. Instead of publishing an easily-searchable spreadsheet, second jobs are listed in a vast PDF file. This makes it difficult to filter through quickly, or to compare your own MP to others.

Worse still, the House of Commons does not check the accuracy of information it publishes. MPs regularly make mistakes in their declarations – but the public is left in the dark because there’s no audit. Sometimes, it’s not even possible to cross-check the information because crucial details (like a company’s unique reference number) do not have to be declared.

Parliament has dragged its heels on fixing this for years, even though the solutions are quick, easy and obvious.

In March, Parliament launched a so-called “discovery project” to find ways of making the register more accessible. No action has been taken yet, but the Standards Committee still believes this is “a good start”. Even worse, its report says nothing at all about the accuracy of declarations.

5. MPs actually have to declare less

Chris Bryant, the chair of the Standards Committee, said the new rules would help with “improving transparency” and “tackling conflicts of interest”.

But rather than increasing transparency, some of the proposals would actually allow MPs to declare fewer outside interests to the public.

For instance, the BBC reported last year that some MPs were making up to £350 an hour by responding to surveys. In total, they made around £116,000 over two years. But the new rules would allow politicians to keep this income private.

They also allow MPs to keep quiet about certain unpaid roles, so they can “enjoy a private life” – such as membership of an organisation or a patronship. And MPs will no longer have to declare property interests if a house is occupied by family members.

These changes may not be huge, but they create less transparency – not more.

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