Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
This parliament is proving to be a shock. Since the December 2019 general election, 18 MPs have been suspended from the House of Commons for a day or more or skipped before being dismissed – and parliament could still stand for another two years. This beats every other parliament in history in a cocked hat. True, this is partly because for the first time ever we are not sweeping bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct under the lurid Pugin rug.
Such matters used to be kept hidden from the prying eyes of the public but, thank goodness, our expectations have changed. There is now a fully independent and confidential body, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which investigates complaints, and an independent expert panel chaired by former High Court Judge Sir Stephen Irwin, which hears individual cases.
But that is not all. Three MPs have been convicted in a court of criminal offenses in this parliament, and another has just been suspended by the Conservative Party pending an investigation by the Metropolitan Police. This means that the so-called group of ‘independent’ MPs, made up of those who have had their party’s whip suspended – either because of an infringement or pending an investigation – now consists of 15 MPs. This is more than the total number of Lib Dem MPs. Also, an anonymous MP has been told to stay away from parliament while the Met investigates extremely serious allegations.
At the other end of the scale, Jo Cox and Sir David Amess have been murdered, Rosie Cooper has been the subject of a far-right assassination conspiracy and many more MPs have to report death threats to the police with horribly regular frequency. These are difficult and difficult times.
It’s only been a year since the bizarre Owen Paterson debacle, when the government did everything it could to change the rules to protect an individual nominated at the last minute of a disciplinary process – which in my book is the polar opposite of due process. .
The Standards Committee has since produced a new draft code of conduct, which will tighten rules on paid lobbying, plug the loophole Paterson has been trying to exploit, and ban MPs from taking paid jobs as a parliamentary adviser, consultant or strategist. . The good news is that the government is in agreement on all of these points. We also recommended that MPs taking on an external role should have a contract specifying that they cannot lobby ministers or officials on behalf of their employer. One would have thought this was the bare minimum to clean up the problems of paid lobbying, but the government has been resisting it until this week. Now he agrees.
What I find hard to believe is that the government is still resisting another change we have recommended, which would significantly improve transparency. As it stands, MPs are required to register any outside financial interests, including travel, gifts and hospitality worth more than £300, with full details, within 28 days. Parliament then publishes these details within about two weeks. But since 2015, ministers have benefited from an exemption, in the sense that they do not record anything they receive “in ministerial capacity”.
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Such interests are expected to be published in the government’s ‘disclosure reports’, which include no details, appear roughly every three months, and are often late and incomplete. This is crazy. It means there is less transparency for ministers than for other MPs. Several ministers have told me that they would much prefer to have one seat for everything to declare, namely parliament, and it must surely be in the public interest that all MPs are treated equally and that all financial interests are accessible in a timely manner and in one place online. Furthermore, the ministerial code required ministers to record hospitality as a minister in the house if it was “on a scale or from a source which might reasonably be thought likely to influence ministerial action”.
The Commissioner of Standards, the Institute for Government think tank, and the 1922 Committee all agree. But oh no, the government is resisting. Penny Mordaunt promises she’ll do “something” about it as leader of the house “by next summer.” But that will not include ending the ministerial exemption as she apparently insists on treating ministers differently.
It puzzles me that the government thinks it can afford another row over parliamentary standards. I don’t think it is in the interest of parliament, let alone the government. Traditionally, the rules of the House of Commons are not a partisan matter. MPs should be able to vote freely with their conscience on Commons affairs.
The government has whipped up every spark of parliamentary activity in recent years, but I hope the whips stay out on Monday when the Commons debate and vote on the new code of conduct. Otherwise he will look like Owen Paterson again. And voters may conclude that the government has learned nothing. Far better to have a unanimous decision from the entire House of Commons with no vote to tighten up the rules and get our house in order.
Chris Bryant is the Labor MP for Rhondda and chairman of the standards committee
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