Why doesn’t the UK government want us to know if ministers have taken gifts and freebies?
This parliament is proving to be a shocker. Since the general election in December 2019, 18 MPs have been suspended from the House of Commons for a day or more or jumped before they were pushed – and the parliament could run for another two years yet. That beats every other parliament in history into a cocked hat. True, that is in part because for the first time ever we are not brushing bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct under the lurid Pugin carpet.
Such matters used to be kept from the prying eyes of the public but, thank goodness, our expectations have changed. There is now a fully independent and confidential body, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which investigates complaints, and an independent expert panel chaired by the former high court judge Sir Stephen Irwin, which adjudicates on individual cases.
But that’s not all. Three MPs have been convicted in a court of law of criminal offences in this parliament, and another has just been suspended from the Conservative party pending an investigation by the Metropolitan police. That means the so-called “independent” group of MPs, which consists of those who have had the whip suspended by their party – either because of an infraction or pending an investigation – now consists of 15 MPs. That’s more than the total number of Lib Dem MPs. In addition, one unnamed MP has been told to stay away from parliament while the Met investigates extremely serious allegations.
At the other end of the scale, Jo Cox and Sir David Amess have been murdered, Rosie Cooper was subject to a far-right murder conspiracy, and many other MPs have to report death threats to the police on a horribly regular basis. These are parlous, difficult times.
It’s only a year since the bizarre debacle over Owen Paterson, when the government threw everything it had at changing the rules to protect a named individual at the very last moment of a disciplinary process – which in my book is the polar opposite of due process.
Since then, the standards committee has produced a new draft code of conduct, which will tighten the rules on paid lobbying, close the loophole Paterson tried to exploit and ban MPs from taking paid work as a parliamentary adviser, consultant or strategist. The good news is that the government agrees on all those points. We also recommended that MPs who take on an outside role should be required to have a contract that specifies they cannot lobby ministers or officials on behalf of their employer. You would have thought this was the bare minimum needed to clean up the problems of paid lobbying, but the government opposed it until this week. It now agrees.
What I find difficult to believe is that the government is still holding out on another change we have recommended, which would significantly improve transparency. As things stand, MPs are required to register any outside financial interests including travel, gifts and hospitality worth more than £300, with full details, within 28 days. Parliament then publishes those details within a fortnight or so. But since 2015 ministers have benefited from an exemption, meaning they don’t register anything they receive “in their ministerial capacity”.
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Such interests are meant to be published in the government’s “transparency returns”, which include no details, appear roughly every three months and are often late and incomplete. This is bonkers. It means there is less transparency for ministers than for other MPs. Several ministers have told me they would much prefer to have a single place for everything to be declared, namely parliament, and it must surely be in the public interest that all MPs are treated equally and that all financial interests are accessible in a timely fashion and in a single place online. Moreover, the ministerial code used to require ministers to register hospitality in their capacity as a minister in the house if it was “on a scale or from a source which might reasonably be thought likely to influence ministerial action”.
The commissioner for standards, the Institute for Government thinktank and the 1922 Committee all agree. But oh no, the government is holding out. Penny Mordaunt promises she will do “something” about this as leader of the house “by next summer”. But that won’t include ending the ministerial exemption as she seemingly insists on treating ministers differently.
It perplexes me that the government thinks it can afford another row over parliamentary standards. I don’t think that is in parliament’s interests, let alone the government’s. Traditionally, the rules of the House of Commons are not a partisan matter. MPs are meant to be able to vote freely with their conscience on Commons business.
In recent years the government has whipped every scintilla of parliamentary business, but I hope the whips will stay out of it on Monday when the Commons debates and votes on the new code of conduct. Otherwise it will feel like Owen Paterson all over again. And voters may conclude that the government has learned nothing at all. Far better to have a unanimous decision by the whole Commons without a vote to tighten the rules and put our house in order.
Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda and chair of the standards committee
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