Sleaze – it’s more than just the Patterson case

Is worry over future inquiries driving PM to change watchdog?

Three times Boris Johnson has been investigated by the Commons’ standards watchdog, which is more than any other UK MP in the last three years.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

And now the prime minister is facing a fourth possible inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, this time over the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment.

With a decision on a fresh investigation due within a matter of weeks, some are raising eyebrows about the timing of Johnson’s move to undermine and overhaul the whole standards system. Others are saying that the system is ripe for reform but it it needs to be stricter or to outlaw lobbying by MPs altogether.

Ostensibly, the Tory plan which emerged this week to introduce a new body for MPs to challenge decisions by the standards committee is to save Owen Paterson’s bacon. The veteran backbencher was facing 30 days suspension from parliament for lobbying government bodies on behalf of firms which paid him more than £100,000 – as revealed by the Guardian two years ago.

No 10 argues that the plan is simply about trying to create a fair system which allows an MP the right of appeal.

But one Tory MP believed the motivation for a shake-up was worry in Downing Street about further standards investigations coming down the track – particularly potential inquiries into lobbying over the award of Covid contracts, and into the prime minister’s loans from a Tory donor for the redecoration of his flat at No 11 Downing Street.

For years there have been warnings that the government has been going in the wrong direction when it comes to tackling inappropriate lobbying and transparency standards, all issues associated with the whiff of corruption and “Tory sleaze”.

As recently as Monday a report by the committee on standards in public life, led by the former spy chief Jonathan Evans, argued that sweeping changes to the system were needed, particularly when it came to oversight of ministers’ behaviour and lobbying by those formerly in power.

The report did not make any recommendations on the standards system for MPs, which is widely seen as imperfect but relatively effective, even though some would like to see the rules tightened further to ban parliamentarians’ second jobs altogether.

Paid advocacy by MPs has been banned in some form or other since 1695, according to Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee. The ban on direct lobbying was formalised after the cash for questions scandals of the 1990s. The standards commissioner and the standards committee of MPs and independent members, have repeatedly enforced those rules when breaches, such as in the case of Paterson, have been brought to their attention.

But even with the prohibition in place, MPs can legitimately have second jobs advising companies on politics and policy. As an example of the revolving door, Sajid Javid, now the health secretary, was paid £150,000 a year by the investment bank JP Morgan shortly after leaving office as chancellor of the exchequer.

The list of Tories, in particular, with second jobs in areas of their policy expertise is long, with many former ministers now working in the sectors they used to govern. Some advise hotel chains, investment companies, property developers; one link is with a gambling firm.

The fine print also allows some wriggle room. MPs can engage in lobbying if it is “six months after the reward or consideration was received”. They are not allowed to speak in the Commons, make approaches to ministers, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings, in return for direct payment in cash or kind.

However, they are allowed to participate in parliamentary proceedings and conversations with ministers that would financially benefit their client as long as they did not start the interaction, the interest is declared and is not for the sole benefit of their client.

Former ministers and public officials can also engage in lobbying just two years after leaving office, under the rules of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba). In practice, some are suspected of doing so under the radar before then, since the watchdog for enforcing lobbying prohibitions has no power to sanction them.

The Greensill scandal, in which the former prime minister David Cameron pestered senior ministers for favours on behalf of his new employer, the supply chain financier Greensill Capital, shows the extent to which intensive lobbying is still permitted. An official parliamentary inquiry found Cameron showed a “significant lack of judgment” but did not breach lobbying rules.

While scandals about lobbying and financial interests of politicians are nothing new, a number of experts, academics – and some MPs themselves – believe standards are being further eroded under the present government. Bryant warned that the public “will think we are the parliament that sanctioned cash for questions”.

Robert Barrington, professor at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, at the University of Sussex and a former government adviser, said on Wednesday that the Paterson case only “illustrates the crisis of standards that is currently undermining democracy in the UK”.

He concluded: “[It is] hard to avoid the conclusion that there is an effort to change the rules when it suits, with arguments based solely on party or tribal loyalty and not any basis of principles or standards. Perhaps that is the luxury of an 80-seat majority.”

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International, also said the “direction of travel” had to change in light of recent cases where the prime minister and government had overridden decisions by standards bodies.

Bruce said: “Coming into this year we have a vacuum of oversight on the ministerial code after the Priti Patel [bullying] case when the independent adviser resigned. We’ve had the commission on the appointments to the upper house overruled by the prime minister when the commissioner took a view that a Conservative donor should not get a peerage. We’ve got this woefully inadequate picture of lobbying of the government. We’ve got a decade of decline in FoI [freedom of information] requests being granted in full. Those are four very concerning areas.

“And yet what do we have this week? We now have government-backed attempts to dismantle a system of oversight set up in the height of 1990s sleaze and further strengthened after the MPs expenses saga of 2009 … The very obvious timing of this proposed review to suspend a suspension suggests this is very partisan.”

Bruce said Transparency International had monitored suspected breaches of parliamentary conduct rules and the ministerial code, finding 30 breaches that were not investigated or where no action was taken in 2020.

“The number of cases where questionable behaviour goes un-investigated has intensified in the last few years under this current administration,” he said. “That is the concern, and I await with keen interest the government’s full response to the committee on standards report because as far as I am concerned there is no turning away from that.”

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