Cut Out Conflicts of Interest To Rebuild Trust in Politics

MPs’ second jobs are a recipe for scandal. A new reportThe following is a publication by the think tank I lead (the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research – “ICDR”) reveals the scale of the problem and proposes a simle remedy: MPs should not be permitted to speak or vote on issues where they have a conflict.

Second jobs are an anachronism in a pre-democratic era. MPs were not paid a salary when parliament was filled by aristocrats, their retainers, and aristocrats. Only those with inherited wealth or the sort of job that permitted one to split one’s time with Westminster, could afford to attend parliament. When electoral reform opened up the possibility of working classlegislators in 1911, MPs were not paid. Over a century, second jobs have been completely eliminated.

In the wake the Owen Patterson scandal, government promised to reform the rules for second jobs. Its proposals were quietly abandoned after obtaining sufficient political cover or an even greater scandal.

Unsurprisingly, a new series scandals began to appear quickly. Lord Maude, Open Democracy reported,“used [an] official trip to tout for private work”. The Guardian reported that the Earl Of Shrewsbury was currently being investigated in relation to lobbying allegations.


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Open Democracy’s reporting on the ICDR investigation revealed a correlation between voting records and financial interests of a number MPs. Examples include the MP with financial interests in a private health insurer who tried to change the law to promote investment in health insurance; The MP working for an oil firm who compared climate change demonstrations to “radical Islam” and voted against measures to prevent climate change; The MP working for an investment bank who voted against taxes on finance sector bonuses; And the MP who works for a gambling firm while voting against regulation of gambling. More than 200 MPs have second jobs and are able to vote on issues that impact on their or their employer’s financial interests.

Correlation is not causation. Our research is not meant to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but to identify structural problems. These are twofold: (1) Any second job creates conflict of interest; (2) MPs are responsible to no one except themselves for ethical issues.

Most MPs won’t be influenced by their employers. The mere existence of a conflict creates risk and, therefore, the perception that they may be. This undermines the trust in our democracy. Conflicts of interest are a key principle in all professions. Lawyers are generally not allowed to work on cases where they have a personal interest in the outcome. If there is a conflict between trustees of charity and board members of company, they must withdraw. Doctors can’t be involved in matters where they have a financial or personal interests. Independent regulators enforce all of these rules. It is odd that MPs who hold positions of power, public trust, and more than those of lawyers, doctors, and board members, are not subject to equivalent professional standards.

Our proposal targets the structural issue – the conflict of interest created by second jobs. MPs cannot vote on any issue in which they have a financial conflict. This would mean that, if an MP wants to make some extra money working for an oil company, they could not speak or vote on issues affecting their employer’s interests (like climate change or fracking). It will, of course, be for that MPs’ constituents to determine whether they would prefer a representative that is able to speak and vote on the full panoply of public policy issues.

This might be criticised for depriving parliament of “relevant” expertise, but parliamentarians are supposed to be representatives, not experts (those who make the “expertise” argument never seem concerned about the lack of MPswith expertise like nursing, social work, or on the factory floor). Legislators need to be encouraged to study all perspectives and issues and not just those related to their field.

Labour proposes that MPs be allowed to take jobs that are in the “public interest”. Yet the question of what jobs are in the “public interest” would be left to MPs themselves and would, consequently, always be subject to the potential for further conflicts of interests. However, there may be some exceptions. If parliamentarians have large share or property portfolios, they could avoid conflict by following the American practice of placing them in blind trust.

These rules should be enforced independently. If MPs are their own judges and juries, there is no incentive to act ethically. Standards must be governed based on facts and not political allies. Accordingly, the courts should appeal to the Commons and Lords from the decisions of the parliamentary standards commissions. This would also introduce the element of “natural justice” that many Conservative members thought was missing from parliament’s treatment of Owen Patterson.

Although these proposals may seem radical, they are simply meant to bring legislators in line with best practices among other professions. If MPs don’t expect the same standards from us, then we cannot trust them.