Revolving doors in Westminster? Forget that, they’ve blown the bloody doors off!

What do we know about the revolving doors in Westminster that we did not know a month ago?

Well, for a start we have seen that for some this is a laughing matter: on 20 March, when an urgent question was tabled in the Commons on his new role as editor of London’s Evening Standard, former Chancellor George Osborne joked that his presence in the House meant missing the newspaper’s deadline.

And why not take a light-hearted view? In 2014 the Telegraph reported that about 180 MPs (or 27 per cent) had more than one job – Osborne just appears to have six.

It’s not unusual

The revolving door phenomenon – the movement of individuals between legislative and regulatory roles and the industries affected by them – is not exclusive to Westminster. Neither is the practice of politicians holding second jobs: some of Europe’s politicians have gone as far as arguing that banning the practice would be a violation of their fundamental rights, although the rules were tightened on lobbying jobs in December 2016.

What’s more – so the argument goes – politicians engaging in second jobs can have a positive impact on politics; it’s a bulwark against the encroachment of the political class, it brings current experience and expertise to their roles, and it keeps them in touch with the real world. And yet, with Guardian analysis showing 20 politicians declaring over £100,000 a year from their part-time engagements, it is perhaps not quite the real world the majority of their constituents live in.

What’s the problem?

Money is important, of course. There’s an implied insult in watching those we’ve elected to represent us finding time to supplement their £74,000 a year salaries, which are over twice the national average for full time employees. And, with 70,000 people in your average constituency, surely they’ve got enough to keep them occupied.

More important still is the potential conflict of interest inherent in representing the public while simultaneously working for industries that can:

(a) Benefit from the insider knowledge, power or connections their politician employees have from serving in parliament; or

(b) Undermine the independence of the media and its ability to hold Westminster to account, for example by employing politicians as columnists or editors.

But is this corruption?

This is certainly not corruption as traditionally defined – as the abuse of public office for private gain – and it’s certainly part of the political culture in Westminster and a practice that many politicians feel entitled to participate in.

And yet, while it may not constitute the classic bribery-based model of corruption, the risks entailed in this practice appear to go a lot further than a simple regulatory loophole or one-off integrity risk.

The need to expand our notion of corruption to encompass practices beyond the quid pro quo exchange of benefits and bribery is widely recognised; from expanding definitions to include “the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests” (Bentham 2015) to distinguishing between legal and illegal forms of corruption (Kaufmann and Vicente 2011). Within this field of enquiry, Thompson’s (1995) concept of institutional corruption provides a useful framework for considering the revolving door – or in the case above, the apparent lack of any door at all – as a tendency to undermine the primary purpose or fiduciary duty of an institution.

Rather implying simply the exchange of benefits for private gain, revolving doors are suspected of enabling institutional corruption: “special relationships and social exchanges that may set distorting incentives, improper dependencies and set up consequential conflicts of interests that ultimately divert important public institutions from their intended missions” (Zinnbauer 2015).

Institutional corruption therefore invites researchers to look beyond individual conflicts of interest and take a broader view of political corruption as the ways in which political culture is degraded by a whole range of practices – practices that may look like politics-as usual, but have profound implications for the effective functioning of democratic institutions.

What can we do?

Traditional responses to political accountability are not silent on this issue.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is currently considering Osborne’s case and it is possible that it will rule his editorship incompatible with his role as a former minister. The UK Committee on Standards in Public Life has also announced a review of its guidance on politicians’ second jobs to consider “reasonable limits” on outside interests.

The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), to which the UK is a state party, similarly has provisions for preventing conflicts of interest under Chapter II (preventive measures): in particular Articles 9 and 12, which consider conflicts of interest declarations and restrictions on the employment of public officials. Westminster abides by these provisions with its Commons Code of Conduct, Ministerial Code and Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The UK is due to be reviewed on its compliance with UNCAC Chapter II in 2018; it will be interesting to see whether recommendations for strengthening regulation in this area will be made.

What more can we do?

If the furore over Osborne’s second jobs has demonstrated one thing it is that political culture in Westminster is out of step: MPs from across the House, including those in Osborne’s own party, have questioned the propriety of his most recent appointment. And the public is not on side either; 60% of people think MPs should be working full time as politicians.

Increased regulation is a default response to accountability weaknesses, but the danger is that we go too far and risk over-regulation, pushback and the emergence of increasingly complex loopholes. If the project to address corruption in all its many forms is to succeed, it must lead us on new paths and to new approaches.

Institutional corruption research has the potential to provide “a more constructive response to demands for greater accountability” by putting “more effort into identifying the less familiar institutional forms and devising remedies appropriate to them” (Thompson 1995; 6). It also names a range of practices that give rise to conflicts and distort democratic systems. If you can name it, you can tame it; and it seems that for far too long practices that may well constitute or nurture institutional corruption have been legitimised as politics-as-usual.

Rebecca Dobson