Rishi Sunak’s government is expected to accept most of a proposed new code of conduct for MPs after the Owen Paterson scandal but has rejected the idea that ministers should declare more details about free hospitality from lobbyists and companies.
Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com
MPs will debate the proposals put forward by the standards committee on Monday, with Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, likely to accept 18 of the 20 recommendations. Key measures include tightening the rules on lobbying to stop MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy.
However, in a move that could trigger another standards row, the government is holding out against a proposal to ask ministers to register with parliament any hospitality provided by third parties worth more than £300 within 28 days, as is required for other MPs.
Instead, they are allowed to make transparency declarations through their departments, without citing a value for hospitality received, and these are often infrequent, delayed and patchy. It is thought Mordaunt may make some alternative proposals to improve their speed and accuracy.
The government is also not accepting the idea of adding a description to the seven principles of public life saying that MPs and other public servants should exemplify non-discriminatory attitudes in their behaviour, which ministers oppose on free speech grounds.
Sunak has promised a more ethical government than under Boris Johnson, but he has so far failed to find a candidate to be the new independent adviser on ministerial interests. This means the disclosure of financial interests of new cabinet ministers is already likely to be delayed from its six-monthly publication.
However, the new administration appears to be willing to accept more proposals than Liz Truss’s government, which issued its response in September rejecting more changes. It is understood the government plans to write to all MPs on Monday setting out its position before the debate.
Chris Bryant, the chair of the Commons standards committee, said it was “bonkers” that the government was refusing tougher disclosure standards for ministers. “It must surely be in the public interest that all MPs are treated equally and that all financial interests are accessible in a timely fashion and in a single place online,” he said.
“The commissioner for standards, the Institute for Government and the 1922 Committee all agree. But oh no, the government is holding out. Penny Mordaunt promises that she will do ‘something’ about this as leader of the house ‘by next summer’. But that won’t include ending the ministerial exemption as she insists on treating ministers differently.”
He added: “It perplexes me that the government thinks it can afford another row over parliamentary standards. I don’t think that is in parliament’s interests, let alone the government’s. Traditionally, the rules of the house are not a partisan matter and MPs are meant to be able to vote freely with their conscience on house business.”
He said that any attempt to whip the Commons on an MPs’ standards matter would “feel like Owen Paterson all over again and voters may conclude that the government has learned nothing at all. Far better to have an unanimous decision by the whole house without a vote to tighten the rules and put our house in order.”
The government’s support for most of the rest of the code means the changes are likely to go ahead on a cross-party basis. This will mean MPs will be banned from providing paid advice as a parliamentary consultant, strategist or adviser – although it stops short of time or earnings limits on second jobs.
However, if they do have a second job, MPs will now have contracts that specify they cannot lobby ministers or officials on behalf of their employer.
A government spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with the standards committee to strengthen our parliamentary standards and enhance our code of conduct. This is important ongoing work and necessary for public trust in democracy.
“We support 18 of the 20 committee recommendations, but this is ultimately for the house to decide.
“With regard to parity on ministerial and parliamentary interests our objectives to achieve parity on the timing of declarations align with the committees. However we do not agree that parliamentary resource, which is there to help the MP represent their constituents, should be used to administer what is a government responsibility, nor that separation of powers and responsibilities should be blurred. We think this has serious negative implications for all MPs. We think that would be unfair to MPs who are ministers or trade envoys.”