Conflicts of interest are undermining trust in UK politics. We need better regulation

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is again under pressure over an apparent conflict of interest. CSC Director Liz David-Barrett suggests that repeated scandals in this area are inevitable – because the UK’s system for regulating conflicts of interest in politics is weak, poorly enforced, and overly dependent on politicians ‘doing the right thing’.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s lucrative consultancy job with Viasat has again come under scrutiny, since it emerged that the company plans to bid for a £6bn government defence contract. Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Christine Jardine has called on Patel to recuse herself from any discussions concerning the firm, arguing that such a strategically significant procurement is likely to be discussed with ministers responsible for national security. Not to do so would mean that Patel was conflicted, able to influence government decisions that directly concern a company from which she receives a substantial income.

The concept of conflict of interest – where a person or organisation has multiple interests, financial or otherwise, which could distort the decisions they make or the way in which they carry out their role – is fundamental to integrity in public office. Some countries deal with it by prohibiting politicians from holding second jobs. But the British system generally trusts individual officeholders to identify their own conflicts and be transparent about them – e.g., by declaring them in registers and at the start of meetings.

The British approach is to set out rules on conflicts of interest in codes of conduct that are not legally binding, and let politicians decide on any sanctions. When a breach of the ministerial code is alleged, the prime minister has discretion to decide whether or not to investigate. (PM Boris Johnson has already used this power to halt an investigation into Mark Field MP’s manhandling of a Greenpeace protester).

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