Boris Johnson Would Be Forced To Declare Cost Of Spain Holiday Under New MP Rules
Boris Johnson faced criticism for not declaring his holiday to Spain in the Commons register of interest (Alamy)
New rules recommended by the Commons standards committee on how MPs declare gifts would force Boris Johnson to reveal how much his free holiday to a luxury Spanish villa would have cost the minister who owns it.
In the wake of the ongoing row over sleaze in Parliament a cross-party committee, led by senior Labour MP Chris Bryant, has published a series of proposals on tightening up the rules.
The report is part of a long-running inquiry into parliamentary standards, a subject which flared up after the government attempted to block a suspension of veteran former Tory MP Owen Paterson last month and create a new appeals panel.
Following backlash from MPs over the reform attempt, and subsequent U-turn by government, the Prime Minister wrote to the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle calling for the code of conduct to be updated.
Under the existing standards procedures Boris Johnson was able to avoid scrutiny by reporting his recent holiday at Lord Goldsmith’s property under the minister's register of interests, a system that he is ultimately in charge of.
As part of a host of new recommendations put forward by the standards committee today, Johnson would have to give a detailed account of the financial arrangements to the MP register.
The committee said "it is manifestly inappropriate for ministers to be subject to fewer and less onerous standards of registration of financial interests than members who are not ministers”.
Other changes to the Commons code of conduct would see MPs banned for taking on consultancy roles as second jobs, toughening up the rules on lobbying and closing the exemption disgraced Paterson tried to use.
It would also see MPs face investigation for launching "excessive" personal attacks online, and after criticism of the appeals process for MPs a "senior judicial figure" would be asked to review whether the current system fair.
However it does not make any proposals on time limits or earnings for second jobs, saying such measures would be “not practicable or enforceable”.
Bryant’s committee's interim report published today also includes following recommendations:
- An outright ban on MPs providing “paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services”, a move that would affect dozens of backbenchers who have earned millions of pounds in recent years for such roles.
- An MP must have a written contract for any second job which makes explicit they cannot lobby ministers, colleagues or public officials, provide advice about how to lobby or influence Parliament, and employer will agree not to ask them to do so.
- The criteria for the "serious wrong exemption” in the lobbying rules, which was what Paterson tried to argue his contact with ministers and officials fell under, must be clarified to “make clearer the risks of conflicts of interests and put an end to this being used as a loophole”.
- The lobbying rules currently “apply for six months after the reward or consideration was received”, but the committee would like that time limit doubled to a year.
- There will be a new “safe harbour” provision in the code of conduct to try and encourage people to seek expert advice before they take on a second job, which will mean “MPs cannot be found in breach of the rules if they have sought and followed the advice of the House of Commons Registrar”.
- The exemption whereby ministers “are not required to register gifts and hospitality they receive in their ministerial capacity with the Commons Register”, as happened with the PM’s holiday to Lord Goldsmith’s villa, will be closed so all outside interests can be found in a single place.
- Parliament should also improve the transparency of the Commons register of members' financial interests and make it easier to search for declarations.
- There will be a new rule to the Code of Conduct, prohibiting an MP “from subjecting anyone to unreasonable and excessive personal attack”, in any medium.
- They propose adding to the Seven Principles of Public Life, referred to as the “Nolan principles”, with an an 8th principle of “respect”, asking MPs to abide by the Parliamentary Behaviour Code and “demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.
Several of the recommendations Bryant makes follow on from a 2018 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), but crucially Bryant’s committee did not agree with the suggestion on updating the code of conduct to limit the amount of time MPs spend on second jobs.
Today's report says while it agrees “it would be wholly inappropriate” for members to take on paid employment that prevented them “from fully carrying out their range of duties”, that is simply a “principle” by which politicians should abide by, and principles "are not designed to be amenable to investigation and enforcement”.
It adds that “a rule in the terms proposed by the CSPL is not practicable or enforceable”, but is holding a consultation ahead of its final report next year on the matter.
Bryant will make a statement in the House of Commons on these findings on Thursday, before taking further evidence into next year. A full report with the final proposals is expected before Easter.
“The past few weeks have seen a number of issues raised about MP’s standards, but the key overarching issue here is about conflict of interest," Bryant said.
"The evidence-based report published by my Committee sets out a package of reforms to bolster the rules around lobbying and conflicts of interest.
“These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the House. This report is the Committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.”
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