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


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