‘Can’t be right’ that ministers enjoy looser rules on financial interests, says standards chief

Current rules allowing government ministers to enjoy less scrutiny of their financial interests than backbench MPs “can’t be right”, parliament’s outgoing standards chief has said.

Andy Gregory www.independent.co.uk

Appointed commissioner for standards in 2017, Kathryn Stone’s term came to an end in December, after a bruising series of high-profile investigations into ex-Commons speaker John Bercow and former Tory MP Owen Paterson, whose case triggered the collapse of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

In her first interview about the role, Kathryn Stone said that one of her “real frustrations” has been failing to persuade the government to ensure that those in both MP and ministerial roles are held equally accountable.

But the retiring watchdog hailed the “hugely important” move to hand the members of the public who sit on the Commons standards committee, known as “lay members”, the power to vote on investigations, enacted after its MPs blocked her attempt to probe bullying claims against Mr Bercow in 2018.

And speaking after revelations that Tory MPs have pocketed a total of £15.2m on top of their salaries since 2019, Ms Stone hit out at parliamentarians for whom being an MP is their “second, third or fourth job”.

While ordinary MPs have to register their financial interests with the standards commissioner within 28 days, with a new list published every fortnight, ministers can choose to declare some gifts and hospitality under their department’s name instead, in less detailed lists published quarterly.

This “ministerial exemption” saw Mr Johnson opt not to declare a free holiday at Zac Goldsmith’s luxury Spanish villa in 2021, enabling him to keep the gift’s value private.

Meanwhile, his home secretary Priti Patel took five months to declare attending the No Time To Die premiere as a guest of the Jamaican tourist board, resulting in an ally suggesting she used the “exemption” because the nature of the fictional film related to her ministerial role.

“One of my real frustrations has been not being able to persuade government, parliament about the need to have a kind of equality of arms, if you like, between ministers’ financial interests, and backbench MPs’ financial interests,” Ms Stone told The Times.

“For me, it can’t be right that ministers are held to a different level of accountability. In fact, a lower level of accountability than backbench MPs. That can’t be right because ministers are in an elevated position and much more, it seems to me, at risk of there being a perception of influence.

“And I really do believe that ministers should be held to the same level of accountability as backbench members of parliament.”

MPs on the standards committee are in agreement, having repeatedly called on the government to close the accountability gap, most recently last May, as part of a series of recommendations aimed at cracking down on “sleaze” in the wake of the scandals involving Tory MPs Geoffrey Cox and Mr Paterson.

The committee also called for a ban on MPs acting as consultants, providing “paid parliamentary advice or strategy services”, a move backed in September by Liz Truss’s short-lived government.

Ms Stone was supportive of MPs having other paid roles, however, saying that their “outside interests can bring a very rich seam of knowledge, skill and experience” to Westminster.

“When it tips over to the point where being a member of parliament is your second, third or fourth job, then that’s problematic for me,” said Ms Stone.

“And it’s also problematic for members of the public who elect a representative and expect their interests to be the priority of the member of parliament and not somewhere down the pecking order.

“So I think when MPs are thinking about outside interests, there needs to be a consideration of what that means for their ability to carry out their democratically elected mandate here, which brings enormous responsibility and is an enormous privilege.”