The Debate on MPs' interests was an opportunity missed
22 July 2013
Last week MPs were debating whether they should be allowed to take on paid directorships and consultancies, on the same day that the Government published details of its plans for a register of lobbyists. Its Bill also includes limits on the amount trade unions and other registered "third parties" can provide directly to general election campaigns. Whilst these are welcome steps, I think a real opportunity has been missed to talk more widely about reform - especially the extent to which the different influences on our decision making processes should be exposed and regulated.
Paramount to the debate about directorships is MPs properly serving their constituents and I’d argue thatrepresenting constituents and scrutinising Government is sufficiently important that MPs should commit to the task fully.That said, MPs are often accused of being out of touch, so if ways can be found to counter that concern, whether that’s by way of trained GPs continuing to practise, teachers getting back in the classroom occasionally or MPs lending a regular helping hand at their local charity shop, there could be many tangible benefits. Job sharing is one way to do this and would also have the added bonus of helping to open up the role of an MP to groups traditionally excluded, such as carers, more parents or those only able to work part time because of a disability.
Allowing MPs to take on paid consultancies and directorships is taking things much further though and, arguably, doesn’t provide the same benefits. Moreover, the fear is that such roles allow MPs to profit from the role of elected office and are more likely to generate a worrying conflict of interest that goes beyond just keeping in touch with a different workplace. Whilst MPs do already have to declare their financial interests over and above a certain level, I think that much more needs to be done to get a grip on how paid and voluntary roles affect how MPs vote – and whether they undermine the core responsibilities of MPs as public servants. It’s also the case that registered interests are only publicised for around 12 months, making it difficult to hold MPs fully to account – I want to see Parliament’s register reflect all the financial interests an MP has ever declared.
I know from a number of Freedom of Information requests that I have made since first being elected, that the problem is not simply confined to paid directorships and consultancies. Ministerial departments are awash with secondees from every conceivable industry and whilst it does make sense for those with sector specific expertise to be sharing that with Government, all too often the relationship is a little more mercenary. Shell routinely train Treasury staff and the Department for Energy and Climate Change tends to take on far more secondees from the nuclear industry than from the renewables sector – so perhaps it’s little wonder that this Government is so hostile to green energy. The businesses involved may well have much to offer but they also have far more to gain.
Then there’s hospitality, informal meetings and the fact that those with business and political power tend to already mix in the same social circles. We cannot control all the lobbying that takes place but we do need to better understand what’s happening as a way to try to avoid – or at least expose - the inevitable conflicts of interest.
The Government has dallied for months now on the issue of a register of lobbyists, so it’s disappointing that the long awaited proposals fall far short of what campaigners like myself have been demanding. Many Government departments already publish details of the meetings they hold but one national newspaper revealed that only a tiny proportion are with identified lobbyists, so the vast majority won’t be covered by the planned register – the proposals as they stand could mean less rather than more transparency. Lobbyists are using this fact to justify no action and instead continuing with existing voluntary measures. However, Unlock Democracy have published their own Bill that seeks to deliver real transparency over who is lobbying whom, what’s being spent and who lobbyists are working for – if a special adviser is also working for a tobacco company we need to know about it. So over the coming months I’ll be attempting to strengthen the legislation that’s been brought forward and to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.
Finally, if we are serious about shining a light on the different ways MPs are influenced we need to look carefully at party political funding too. There’s been no agreement on state funding of political parties despite plenty of cross party talks between the biggest 3 parties – who have most to lose from reform - and yet it’s needed more than ever in a world where the Square Mile contributes 51% of the Conservative Party’s funding and trade unions contribute 91.3% of all the Labour Party’s cash. Admittedly, this is a thorny issue at a time when public money is in short supply but I think the country wants and deserves the system to be cleaned up. What’s more, the Committee on Standards in Public Life says spending an extra £23 million and banning individual donations above £10,000 would end the problem of private parties influencing elected officials. This is around the cost of a first class stamp per person. As a country we pride ourselves on our democracy, we send our troops into wars to defend democracy, yet most politicians feel unable to defend it at home by asking the public to make that small contribution to state funding of political parties.
As Parliament winds down for the summer recess, more questions remain unanswered than have been addressed by recent Government and Labour statements on these important issues. I for one won’t allow them to be forgotten when we come back in September.