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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Whatever Happened To The Crackdown On MPs’ Second Jobs?

(Alamy)

5 min read

Sit down, this might come as a shock, but: the government has broken a promise. In November 2021, with the Owen Paterson scandal fresh in the memory, then prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to crack down on MPs’ second jobs.

Last August, however, the Guardian reported that MPs’ private incomes were continuing their climb towards the stratosphere, and over the past year they had pulled in nearly £10m between them. Just a few weeks earlier, Jonathan Evans, the crossbench peer who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, had called once again for tougher rules.

All of which raises a question. Given the enthusiasm with which Tory MPs have recently begun looking towards their post-parliamentary careers; and given that the Guardian had found that the biggest earner, by a staggering coincidence, was one Boris Johnson, accounting for £4.8m of non-parliamentary income all by himself – can all this really be as cynical as it looks?

The answer, and this really will come as a shock, might actually be no; or at least, not completely. Banning second jobs turns out to be a lot easier to promise than to actually do.

A quick precis of the events of autumn 2021 for those who may have blocked it from their memories: In October, the Commons Select Committee on Standards found that the Cameron-era Cabinet minister Owen Paterson had broken parliamentary rules, by lobbying ministers and government agencies on behalf of two companies for whom he was a paid consultant; it recommended a 30 day suspension from parliament. Boris Johnson’s government, keen to reduce the risk of a recall petition and by-election, tried to overrule the Committee, and to change the disciplinary process; but a combination of public outrage and a media feeding frenzy regarding other MPs’ private incomes swiftly caused it to backtrack.

On 17 November, Labour tabled an opposition day motion, calling for the government to accept the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2018 recommendations that MPs should be banned from all paid work as a parliamentary advisor, strategist or consultant. The government, unusually, accepted the motion, and promised to go further by accepting another CSPL recommendation placing “reasonable limits” on time spent on outside work. It did, however, weaken the timetable for implementation.

Even at the time, a report from the Institute for Government warned that “the detail will be crucial”, and set out a series of questions that needed answering. Some of them (Can a ban on MPs being paid for parliamentary advice actually work?) had relatively simple answers (probably, they’ve managed it in Holyrood and the Senedd).

Others, though, were more difficult. Imposing limits on outside interests required some sense of what MPs’ duties actually were, a matter which has never been defined and is likely to differ between both individuals and constituencies. As to what limits might count as “reasonable”, here too things get tricky. Income-based limits run into the problem that certain types of work (books, speeches) could provide a dizzying range of income for the same actual labour; time-based ones are extremely hard to police.

And then there’s the fact that certain professions (medicine, law) require their members to practice to maintain professional registrations. Carving out an exception for such roles might be deemed unfair to MPs from other backgrounds, and could result in cases such as that of the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whose lucrative work as a barrister had also contributed to the furore of November 2021. Not doing so risked putting members of such professions off political careers entirely.

All of which meant that the government’s promise of new and tighter rules around MPs’ outside interests did not just run counter to the self-interest of actual members of that government, although it did: it was also surprisingly hard to turn into actual policy. And so, as the Paterson crisis rolled on into the partygate crisis (and the Johnson leadership crisis, and the Truss premiership crisis), much of the pledge was quietly abandoned. In March 2022, ministers told the Commons standards Committee that plans to cap MPs’ outside incomes were unworkable; in May, they abandoned plans to place time limits of second jobs too, on the grounds there was no cross-party consensus on reform.

There has been some progress. Last March a new code of conduct for MPs came into effect, explicitly banning MPs from providing parliamentary advice to an outside employer, and requiring them to have written contracts specifying that they cannot lobby or offer paid parliamentary advice. But this is a partial solution at best. This past July, Lord Evans, the crossbench peer who heads the parliamentary ethics watchdog, called for tighter rules. “There have been some quite well-documented cases where it’s hard to argue that this person is putting their main focus on their parliamentary duties, given the amount of time that they appear to be giving to other activities,” he told Sky News.

Such calls have been echoing for about as long as anyone can remember. In early 2010 an up and coming politician warned that “crony capitalism” was “the next big scandal waiting to happen“. The speaker was David Cameron, who would within a matter of weeks be ideally placed to address the problem. Yet as late as 2018, Evans’ predecessor as chair of the CSPL, Lord Bew, could complain that recommendations he’d made before Cameron even spoke had still not been taken up. The combination of administrative complexity and political self-interest is a recipe for inertia.

A government spokesperson insisted that "integrity, professionalism and transparency” are at the heart of government. "An MP’s primary job is and must be to serve their constituents and represent their interests in Parliament,” they added. 

Could a change of government unblock all this? Last January Keir Starmer promised that his Labour party would ban second jobs: this might be easier for a Prime Minister who has just arrived in Downing Street, whose MPs rarely make the kind of non-parliamentary incomes their Conservative colleagues do. Even as he said it, though, Starmer added that there would be exceptions, and defended front-bencher David Lammy’s £200,000 of external income. As in so many ways, it’s not yet clear how much change a new government will actually bring.

 

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