Is there a lack of accountability for the use of ‘our’ time by MPs?

There has plenty of news of late on MPs and their second jobs (for example, see here).  Martin Brown, recently graduated from Sussex’s MA in Corruption and Governance, takes a look at some of the challenges inherent in regulating how MPs use ‘our time’

MPs are lobbyists. They spend their time lobbying for us. They do that in order to make better laws and to scrutinise the work of government, ministers and civil servants. MPs know that it is only through careful research, consultation and consideration that good political decisions can be taken. In order to do that they meet with a wide range of stakeholders, some of those people are by necessity lobbyists. Lobbying, a term much used and abused, is an exchange of information.  Or, as Figuero and Richter (2014) put it an exchange of information …

‘… in private meetings and venues between interest groups and politicians, their staffs, and agents. Information takes the theoretical representation of a message and, in practice, may have many forms: statistics, facts, arguments, messages, forecasts, threats, commitments, signals, or some combination thereof. (Figuero and Richter, 2014)

Unfortunately for us, meetings between lobbyists and MPs tend to go unrecorded, while much of what an MP says otherwise is recorded – by Hansard, if it’s in parliament, or in the media if it is in public elsewhere. Of course we don’t pay as much attention as we should to what MPs say until lobbying goes wrong or when an MP’s behaviour comes into question. When, in other words, it deviates from:

‘the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (personal, close family, private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private- regarding influence. (Nye 1967)

We know MPs make honest mistakes. Indeed, the MPs’ Code of Conduct and Guide to Rules (CoC) and the MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses (SBCE) are designed to help MPs make as few of them as possible, offering guidance for better ethical behaviour, for example when his or her formal or informal duties overlap with their private interests. These mostly useful guides don’t always work because the advice on offer can be confusing: ‘the code applies to all aspects of their public lives. It does not seek to regulate what members do in their purely private and personal lives (CoC p3 2015).

Public and Private

It is difficult to draw, as they suggest, a solid line between an MP’s public and private interests. The Wittingdale case (BBC, April 2016) is an illustration of this problem, when a politician has too much discretion and is then judged to have ‘got it wrong’, defining a public issue as purely private.

In the John Wittingdale case, the former Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, maintained that his relationship with someone working in the sex industry should remain a private matter. He thought the public should not know about some newsworthy episodes even though he had responsibility for press regulation and his office could influence what journalists write. MPs, understandably, want to protect their privacy and their Parliamentary privileges. It is they after all, who defend democracy on our behalf.

What is much less understandable is their ‘need’ to protect privileges relating to second jobs and consultancies. Winston Churchill was a strong advocate of the idea that an MP’s Parliamentary office should not be a full time commitment. Many MPs (although more on the Tory side than on the Labour side) think it is good for the public if MPs stay in touch with the ‘real world’ by working outside of the House of Commons. However, this now looks more like the type of ‘smart’ behaviour Donald Trump would argue for. Many MPs have second jobs, some are happy to admit to selling their time and political connections to big businesses. John Bercow MP, Leader of the House of Commons, clearly thinks it is still bad behaviour:

“people should be in Parliament to represent their constituents and to stand up for principles and policies dear to them. People should not be in Parliament to add to their personal fortune… I have in the past suggested a lot of members of the public would expect members of parliament to do a full-time job” (Skye News, 2015)

Public trust in MPs is still trying to recover from the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2008. Public understanding of British politics has not improved, even with better access to information about Parliament from Freedom of Information requests (Birkenshaw, 2010). We still do not know what excellent or even just ‘good’ behaviour in an MP’s office looks like. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) reports on MPs’ office expenses, offering fiscal transparency, but even this is thin soup without any useful narrative about how MPs make decisions or what they do with their time. We can see that IPSA and the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS) take complaints and they do question MPs. However, only a tiny number of these investigations result in Parliamentary sanctions being placed on MPs. The Parliamentary system more often defends the decisions of MPs, possibly fearing what appears to them as a slow erosion of MPs’ powers because of a small number of bad apples.

However the problem remains; how do we get better, more useful information from MPs to help us understand what they do with our time? The current system of disclosures and registers, such as the Register of MP’s Financial Interests and the Register of All Party Parliamentary Groups, is not easily searchable across years or for individual MPs and there is no easy method of comparing information across registers. Transparency International has published very useful information about the UK Lobbying Act 2014 and they outline reforms for the Lobbying Register which include some essential disclosures.

Revolving Doors

These disclosures are also essential for fixing the larger problem of ‘Revolving Doors’, when long-term benefits accrue to MPs, Ministers and Civil Servants because of their co-operation with lobbyists. Listen to what Richard Brook’s a former HMRC Tax Inspector has to say about the problems of crony capitalism in our democracy and how lobbying creates the expectation of future employment. Lobbying shifts an MP’s priorities away from their official duties towards the interests of big business.

Brooks tells us Tony Blair is the worst example of this type of deviation. Blair actively conceals the names of those he consults with and for and hides what he earns as a lobbyist through his network of companies. We should also ask does David Cameron plan to use his political contacts in the same way as Blair and should we know who those political contacts are when he uses them? The Lobbying Act 2014 asks very little of serving or retired politicians while 650 MPs are not required to keep any records at all of their meetings with lobbyists. Keep in mind that some MPs are more sought after by lobbyists than others because they are members of Select Committees or active in the Shadow Cabinet. These MPs are in demand as lobbying scandals involving ‘cash for access’ show. In 2013, Patrick Mercer MP broke ‘house’ rules when he failed to declare paid political consultancy and paid advocacy while he was Chair of the Fiji All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).

In 2015, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP used his position as Chair of Parliament’s Security and Intelligence Committee and argued that despite his workload as an MP and Chair of an important Select Committee, he had plenty of time for political consultancy.

Rifkind was seen to be greedy. An MP earns £74,962 pa (April 2016) with an additional £15,000 pa for chairing a Select Committee. Ben Scott analysed MPs’ disclosures of additional income from the MPs’ Register of Members Financial Interests (RMFI) in 2015, showing that: ‘73 MPs were paid £3.4million for advisory roles in 2014-15’. Scott aggregated all payments by type and noted that declared payments for advisory roles accounted for 36% and £3,444,797 of all additional income for MP’s.

It appears unlikely that the current system of self–regulation and co-regulation in the House of Commons will offer us better transparency or more accountability around how MPs take decisions. However, in that space there is an opportunity for (Labour?) MPs to lead by collective voluntary action, by making better digital declarations about meetings to provide a narrative that can fill in the gaps left by IPSA and Parliamentary Registers. Whether they are able to take it is another matter.

Martin Brown

Big money, politics and public opinion; a difficult mixture

UK democracy is in a crisis of confidence. These are the findings released in a report on Friday by Transparency International (TI) entitled ‘Take Back Control: How Big Money Undermines Trust in Politics’.

The headline figures undoubtedly make grim reading for the British political elite: 76% of respondents think wealthy individuals often use their influence on government for their own interests, 59% of respondents thought financial support by companies to political parties and candidates should be banned completely and 28% thought ‘most’ or ‘all’ MPs are involved in corruption.

These findings are based on the TI Global Corruption Barometer (GCB). The full results of the 2016 survey are not yet available but previous polls are also instructive. The 2013 GCB, for example, found that 66% of respondents felt that political parties were corrupt, or extremely corrupt.

The GCB is not without its methodological failings. Taken at face value the poll would mean the UK would rank somewhere between Afghanistan (performs better) and Zimbabwe (performs worse) on the same measures. Despite the legitimate, and legion, disappointments we might have with our political elite that is not a ranking that holds up to serious scrutiny. Indeed, when the same poll asks about actual experiences of corruption, the UK comes out much better.

Following the Voters’ Wishes

However, as I show in the recently published collection ‘More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: Another 50 Things You Need To Know About Elections’ findings such as these are consequential. Politicians feel compelled to respond to the overwhelming public belief that the system is broken. In 2010 and 2015 the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos all included some form of pledge to introduce (or at least discuss) reform of party finance. Alongside this, in the past ten years there have been two major government sponsored commissions on the subject: the Hayden Phillips Review (2006-2007) and the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) Inquiry in 2010-11.

This is no less ironic as the public overestimates how much businesses contribute and (considerably) underestimates how much individuals contribute. Although, in fairness, the knowledge that almost 50% of the financing of British parties is made up by (often large) individual donations is, perhaps, unlikely to quell public unease.

In fact, when it comes to party funding reform, we find ourselves in a situation in which policy recommendations are made – and put into manifestos – almost entirely based on public perceptions. Yet we also know this is a subject about which the public doesn’t really know much at all. Many experts also believe these perceptions to be mistaken – or at least exaggerated.

Where to from here?

TI suggest that their findings show that the ‘public want tougher controls on money in politics’. The solution proffered is to draw on the recommendations from the CSPL and cap donations at £10,000. The problem with this is the report entirely neglects to include the logical conclusion of this policy – as quoted on release of the CSPL report in 2011:

“If the public want to take big money out of politics, the only way to do so is a cap on donations. It is unrealistic to expect to be able to do that at a level low enough to achieve public support.”

You simply cannot remove a large institutional form of funding and expect parties to get by. Although Labour party membership has positively ballooned (technical political science jargon) party subs still only account for 18% of Labour’s total 2015 income.

Yet state funding continues to be unpopular with the public. When the CSPL held focus groups on the subject of increasing public funds they described a particular journey respondents generally followed. There was an initial concern about donations followed by that concern increasing and state funding becoming viewed as acceptable.  However, when facing the reality of trade-offs between caps on donations and increased state funding there was quickly a decrease in acceptability and a reluctance to introduce a cap or indeed to increase state funding. That’s no solution at all.

This, if nothing else shows you that focus group researchers do God’s work. More importantly it shows that there is an essential collective action problem, a paradox at the centre of debates surrounding party funding. The public by-and-large detest the current system – but aren’t willing to pay for it to change.

Further muddying the water is that there’s little evidence that reforms would have the desired effect. A cap on donations, for example, may or may not significantly reduce the risk of corruption, but it is even less likely to make a difference to perceptions of corruption.

As the report suggests a mistrust in politicians and the current political order is not unique to Britain, it is a (at the very least) Europe-wide phenomena. Significant state subsidisation is the norm on the continent.

As the public have little knowledge of how party funding works (and to be fair, that in and of itself is not unreasonable; Joe Bloggs has other things to worry about) it is unlikely that such reforms will work. Especially if framed as a panacea for both political disaffection and political misbehaviour. This makes it all the more perplexing that recommendations and policy reform lean so heavily on public opinion.

Any report that attempts to put party funding reform at the front and centre of public debate outside of a perceived episode of political malfeasance should be lauded. The problem TI have is that they fail to grasp a question that has foxed policy makers (and academics) for decades. What do you do when the voters are wrong?

Sam Power

University of Sussex

Corruption, Anti-Corruption and the Power of Education

Corruption, so it often seems, is everywhere. Yet there are only very few universities that have teaching programmes that are dedicated to analysing it. The University of Sussex has been in the vanguard of trying to change that. It introduced a full-time MA in Corruption and Governance back in 2012 and a two-year part-time LLM in Corruption, Law and Governance taught out of Qatar in 2016. Analysing corruption won’t rid us of the problem overnight, but, via the students who come through these courses, it does have the potential to help coax and cajole (sometimes reluctant) rulers to change their ways.

According to the word corruption appeared 1,240 times in UK newspaper article headlines in 2015. Fraud was even more prevalent, appearing on 4,177 occasions. The word bribery, meanwhile, came up a ‘mere’ 264 times. The types of cases covered were also wide, varied and often bewildering; on one day alone in the UK in November, for example, the Independent was analysing how the Vatican was putting reporters on trial who had previously uncovered corruption cases in the Holy See. The Times was talking about an apprentice jockey who was facing a ban from horse racing on account of deliberately riding to lose whilst the Guardian was analysing FIFA’s alleged corruption problems.

Academic research in the area of corruption has also blossomed. A search in mid-2016 for the term corruption on JSTOR, the digital library of academic publications, revealed no less than 169,941 journal articles where corruption was mentioned. Fraud, meanwhile, appeared in 105,144 articles and bribery came up on 22,971 occasions. Corruption, and concepts that are closely linked to it, are on a lot of people’s minds.

Taught programmes on corruption

The widespread interest in corruption is nonetheless not replicated in taught programmes in academia. Around the world you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of universities where corruption or related topics are the subject of a whole degree programme. More places offer specific modules that look at parts of the corruption mosaic, but they are often small parts of much bigger and broader degree academic paths.

At least some of the reasons for this are (in part) understandable. Corruption is a difficult notion to pin down. Tricky methodological challenges need to be overcome. Corruption is inherently interdisciplinary in nature, yet, despite much high-minded rhetoric, university programmes tend to remain avowedly disciplinary in focus. Finally, and less understandably, corruption has also often been understood as nothing more than a marginal problem.

Rather than shirk these challenges, the University of Sussex has chosen to rise to them. The take up on the MA launched in 2012 has been encouraging, and this prompted Qatar’s Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Centre (ROLACC) to approach Sussex about launching a programme in the Gulf Region looking at similar questions. The product of that is a course that analyses how the rule of law can and must be at the centre of anti-corruption thinking, but also how other related but different concepts play key roles.

Getting governance right, for example, is vital in setting the groundwork for tackling corruption. Indeed, it is often work done in other, interrelated areas that is most vital. Hardwire in processes of both transparency and accountability across the whole bureaucratic machine and you will choke the oxygen out of corruption’s lungs.

Coaxing and Cajoling

The key contribution that programmes such as Sussex’s MA and LLM make is not of revealing the golden bullets that will help kill the corruption beast. If it were that easy, there would be no need for corruption and anti-corruption courses at all. It’d be a simple case of ticking off boxes on a technocratic check-list.

The role that education plays is to help students think about core concepts that academic research has revealed to be important. Transparency and accountability are just two of these, but how they translate into policy will naturally be determined by the structures on the ground. Successful anti-corruption tools can and do take on different forms in different places.

The job of Sussex’s graduates, from both the UK and Qatar, is to use the skills and knowledge they have acquired to evaluate what needs to be done in each given setting. Based on what they have learned, they need to have the confidence to use their judgement to coax and cajole those who are reticent to reform of the merits of their particular case. The great value of education is that it empowers citizens to think, to evaluate and to act. In terms of a global challenge such as corruption, there clearly is plenty for Sussex’s students to begin acting on.


Dan Hough

University of Sussex