Lobbying in politics: a perennial issue?
MPs set their own rules, as do the House of Lords. MPs have had to register their outside interests since 1974 and significantly boosted their scrutiny of abuse after 1994 and the ‘cash for questions’ scandal. This was where some MPs took literal brown envelops of cash in exchange for asking questions in Parliament. It was a part of the narrative of ‘sleaze’ that ended 18 years of Conservative Government in 1997 with a landslide win for Labour. Lobbying by MPs then is already clearly against their code of conduct and has been for years:
“No Member shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House…taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the House is strictly forbidden”.
This tallies with the Prime Minister’s recommendation:
“MPs should not accept any paid work to provide services as a Parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant, for example, advising on Parliamentary affairs or on how to influence Parliament and its members. MPs should never accept any payment or offers of employment to act as political or Parliamentary consultants or advisers.”
In substance, this adds nothing, but it creates the perception that such clarity is required to address issues arising from the recent row about former MP Owen Paterson. Paterson’s defence, that he was acting exceptionally in the public interest and subject to an unfair process, was novel, and rejected by the competent authority, the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards. The Government’s decision to temporarily agree with Paterson looked political, with many Conservatives, including the PM, feeling the Commissioner was biased against them. But it was not well grounded in either the spirit or letter of the rules. Some valid points were raised about the Standards process, MPs should have a right of appeal, but paid lobbying is lobbying, and acting in the public interest for no reward beyond your MP’s salary is the job. That Paterson has resigned however renders the substance of the complaint, for him at least, moot.
Parliament conversely is left needing to remind people that these rules exist. This has less to do with one former MP than it does with the pandemic. Several politicians seem to have treated the pandemic as a carte blanche exemption to the Nolan standards in public life that followed cash for questions. Again, no doubt ‘in the public interest’, several appear to have engaged in helping friends and interests to which they are personally connected to secure Government contracts linked to pandemic services. Standard rules of public procurement were necessarily streamlined to ‘save the NHS’, but not suspended entirely. MPs and peers were still expected to behave with selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership on the behaviour of others.
It seems unlikely that the public perception of Parliament this month aligns with those ambitions. The ‘war powers’ defence, that the only thing that matters in a crisis is solving the crisis, does not survive modern expectations that even to win a war we generally expect people not to commit war crimes, let alone personally profit from them. If you do, then expect to reap the consequences, which in respect of MP’s paid lobbying means the possibility of recall and losing your seat.
Labour’s proposed solution, which is to ban all second jobs (bar a few exceptions), looks equally political, targeting a perception of their opponent’s greed rather than upholding standards in public life. If it is OK for an MP to be a doctor one day a week, it is OK to do a range of other occupations that are not lobbying, for example writing newspaper columns, providing legal advice or being a football referee. It is for the voters to decide whether those decisions are wise, rather than a matter of restrictions. It would not be possible to sensibly define every job that might create the perception of a conflict of interest, so it is better to focus on the substance of lobbying activity, rather than their category.
The underlying issue however remains the lapse in standards following an extraordinary event, not the rules. With the pandemic now largely over, this should not persist, the UK is not a country that experiences high levels of political corruption. But for those involved in poor decisions, the political damage may already have been done.