openDemocracyUK: Opinion

No second jobs for MPs, declare all lobbying: how Labour can fight corruption

The people should be sovereign – but it is the power of wealth that is steering the UK’s course. A few simple but strong measures would fix that

Jon Trickett
4 November 2021, 4.21pm
Labour leader Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner must act to tackle government corruption
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Matt Crossick/Empics/Alamy Live News

A sickening stench of corruption is in the air. It is a scandal that Conservative MPs yesterday ripped up the parliamentary standards regime simply to save a colleague who had been found guilty of breaching rules. Their vote drags down the reputation of MPs and Parliament in the eyes of the public.

From ‘cash for questions’ in the 1990s to the expenses scandal in the 2000s and the recent bullying and harassment cases in Parliament, it is blindingly obvious that we need firm processes to scrutinise MPs’ activities. But after the Tories’ actions yesterday, Parliament has no process at all.

The Conservatives acted on their own to create a new standards body without consulting the opposition. Labour and the Scottish National Party were right to boycott it. Today this seems to have forced an embarrassing U-turn, which leaves the government’s position murkier than ever, and led to Owen Paterson’s resignation as a Tory MP.

As shadow minister for the Cabinet Office under the previous Labour leader, I proposed measures to clean up the lobbying scandal on a cross-party basis. And back in 2013, I warned about the Tory ‘Lobbying Act’: “This legislation runs contrary to the spirit of the times in which we live. It permits lobbying by the rich and powerful to continue in an unregulated way and in the shadows, while at the same time it seeks to silence wider civic society.”

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That is exactly what has happened. Whilst big business has a free rein in the corridors of power, a host of measures are being taken to quieten the voices of dissent in society.

Boris Johnson’s government is dissolving the boundaries between the government and state and the business elite. Indeed, things have got exponentially worse since 2013. Back then Cameron’s Lobbying Act gave lobbyists a soft ride, but at least they were supposedly on the outside looking in and there was recognition that their activities ought to be controlled.

MPs are well paid and receive generous expenses. There is no place for additional employment or payment

Now – and particularly during the pandemic – commercial interests are fusing with government, as tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money is handed out to Tory chums.

And this week, Paterson, an experienced former minister, was found by Parliament’s Committee on Standards to have breached rules on paid advocacy – lobbying – several times. He was found to have been paid as a consultant by two private firms and made approaches on their behalf to government agencies and ministers – the Food Standards Agency and at the Department for International Development – without declaring any interests.

MPs are meant to declare the financial donations they receive in a register and when they speak or write on matters affected by their financial interests, so that their electorate can see on whose behalf they are operating.

How to clean up politics

It would be better of course if MPs (and peers) were not permitted to represent private interests other than those of their constituents.

We should ban MPs from holding second jobs. It should be a full-time job to effectively represent 75,000 constituents and one that does not allow time to represent other paid interests. MPs are well paid and receive generous expenses. There is no place for additional employment or payment.

As I set out in my recent wealth tax report, such a move is a vital part of a much-needed political revolution to prevent the power of wealth being used to subordinate our institutions.

We should also establish a far more comprehensive lobbying register, with tough rules, effectively policed. It could cover not just lobbying firms, as with existing legislation, but in-house employees and think tanks that engage in lobbying. Those think tanks would also be required to declare their funders. Trade unions, incidentally, do this – it’s some of the cleanest money in politics.

The register needs to cover lobbying of any MP and any employee of government, not just ministers, the very top civil servants and special advisers, as at present.

And it needs to tell us more about the lobbying: what was discussed? Too often government departments disclose very little.

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The toothless watchdog that oversees ministerial appointments, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) needs to be abolished and replaced with a body that is better resourced and more representative of society, and that has the power to really tackle the revolving door. To mandate – not merely advise – and to impose penalties where ministers and crown servants move too quickly into a private business role where they can use their government connections.

Parties have a role too. In the leadership election that followed Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat I argued for full transparency and a declaration of all donations received by candidates prior to the vote taking place so that members could form a judgement. It is regrettable that this did not happen.

The Labour Party could lead the way. We could indicate that all our candidates for elected office – internally or externally – will promptly declare any donation and that our MPs will sign a pledge before being elected not to take second paid jobs. And we could insist that whenever they encounter paid lobbyists, they will enter that meeting on a public register.

There was a time when British politicians boasted that our democratic practices were amongst the cleanest in the world. They still like to pretend that the people are sovereign and that our democracy ensures that the state serves the interests of the voters. But it isn't true. It is the power of wealth and of the wealthy that is dictating the direction of travel.

The only response now is a root-and-branch transformation to make our public institutions the servant of the people, so that both state power and wealth are required to serve the common good.

This is a noble cause that might clean up our institutions, inspire millions and bring about lasting change. Labour ought to embrace it.

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