Standards is the word of the day, after the Government watered down controversial plans to overhaul the disciplinary process for MPs and review a senior Tory’s alleged breach of lobbying rules amid accusations of “sleaze”.
Rather than face a fresh vote on a possible six-week ban, former minister Owen Paterson said on Thursday afternoon he would resign as an MP, triggering a by-election. He denied any wrong-doing, saying: “My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned”.
Mr Paterson’s case has triggered a major row over how MPs’ integrity is maintained.
But what exactly is lobbying, when does it venture into illegality, and who is in charge of holding elected legislators to account?
– What is lobbying?
Lobbying, put simply, is when a person or a group tries to persuade someone in Parliament to back a policy or campaign. If you can get an MP to throw their weight behind your idea, it may well find its way onto the debate floor or into committee meeting rooms.
This doesn’t have to be done in person: lobbying can take the form of letter-writing, emailing, or contacting someone on social media.
There are lots of different groups who may consider lobbying, including charities, trade unions and industry representatives.
– How does it concern MPs?
MPs may be persuaded that a cause is important, and subsequently initiate or participate in parliamentary proceedings, vote, or approach ministers or other members accordingly.
But they must never take payment for this. To do so is “strictly forbidden” in their code of conduct.
In addition, the code states that MPs may not enter into “any contractual arrangement” which fetters their “complete independence” in Parliament.
“Nor may an outside body (or person) use any contractual arrangement with a Member of Parliament as an instrument by which it controls, or seeks to control, his or her conduct in Parliament, or to punish that member for any parliamentary action,” it adds.
But the rules do not prevent an MP from holding a paid outside interest as a director, consultant, or adviser – “whether or not such interests are related to membership of the House”.
They only apply to those who are rewarded – either by payment or consideration – for lobbying, and whose activities would financially or materially benefit the party offering those rewards.
They do not otherwise prevent MPs from initiating or participating in proceedings or approaching ministers, members or public officials, “even where they themselves may have a financial interest”. In such cases, they must abide by the rules on registration and declaration. MPs must also consider whether they have a conflict of interest.
That being said, MPs should not initiate meetings with ministers or officials on a matter which may confer a financial or material benefit on a person or organisation that has rewarded, or will reward, them or their family.
They may participate in meetings from which they could benefit in this way, so long as neither they nor the person or organisation rewarding them was the initiator. It is also important that their participation does not seek to exclusively benefit the party in which they have a financial interest.
– What is legal and what is not?
The MPs’ code of conduct dictates their ethical standards. But their actions when it comes to lobbying are also bound by law – specifically, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.
The Act introduced a statutory register of consultant lobbyists. The idea was to keep a transparent record of those seeking to lobby ministers and top officials on behalf of a third party.
The register does what it says on the tin: it concerns consultant lobbyists – ie those who are paid to represent the interests of a third party. This means it does not apply to individuals or organisations who lobby the Government on their own behalf.
It was this detail that meant former prime minister David Cameron was not found to be in breach of the rules when he lobbied on behalf on Greensill, where he was employed as an adviser, without adding his name to the register of interests.
While it directly concerns lobbying of Parliament, MPs should never put themselves in a position where they might be in breach of the Act. This is because to register in the first place, they must declare themselves a consultant lobbyist. And this is strictly forbidden by their code of conduct.
– Who enforces the code?
It is the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, currently Kathryn Stone, who considers any allegations that an MP has breached the code of conduct.
If the commissioner is satisfied that they have seen sufficient evidence, they have the power to launch an inquiry.
If they find that there has been a breach, they report this to the cross-party Committee on Standards.
The committee will then consider the case and make its own conclusions, including any recommendations to the House on what should happen next.
If the committee agrees with the commissioner that there has been a breach, it can suggest certain penalties for the person in question. These could include a written apology, an apology on the floor of the House, or even suspension from the House for a specific number of sitting days.
It is up to the House to decide whether to implement these recommendations.