There should be far more rigorous financial rules for MPs
Last year I fought to ensure that MPs for rural and island communities would be able to participate remotely in Parliament during the height of the pandemic. I did so to ensure that our communities got the same representation as anywhere else, regardless of geography or personal circumstances.
Former Attorney General, Sir Geoffrey Cox holing up for a month in the British Virgin Islands, voting by proxy and appearing to spend his days on lucrative legal work, is not quite what I had in mind.
When the news of Mr Cox’s creative use of remote working broke last week, press reporters attempted to track him down. He was nowhere to be found. All that was known was that he was “abroad” – a little too on-the-nose even for satire you might think.
Ironically, the one person who might be said to have predicted this sordid outcome was none other than the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
When I led an emergency debate in Parliament last June to challenge the government on their plans to scrap remote working for MPs, Mr Rees-Mogg did his level best to dismiss cross-party concerns as mere laziness. That vulnerable MPs were still having to shield, that some of us had caring responsibilities or long distances to travel by public transport – none of that mattered. By Mr Rees-Mogg’s telling, it seemed to me anyone concerned about coming back, physically, to Parliament during a pandemic was simply trying to avoid their duties as an MP, using remote working as a chance to bunk off and do other things.
It now appears that the Leader of the House was not entirely wrong in his accusations – he just would have been better off aiming them at his own benches!
We need nothing less than a revolution in transparency and a retrenching of financial fair play for MPs
While I am making light of the misbehaviour of Sir Geoffrey Cox, in my view his abuse of remote working is no joke to those who faced the sneers of the government. We made the best case we could that, in a time of pandemic, remote participation and proxy voting were the least-worst way to ensure that our constituents got the representation they deserve. We ran debates, held votes, and held the government to account, despite the challenges of Covid.
And while we did all this, Mr Cox used the system we had fought for to fly off to the Caribbean. He used it to hand off his vote to a party Whip and, one assumes, forget his responsibilities. Between the start of the pandemic and today, I have spoken in Parliament 199 times – and this is not an exceptional figure. Mr Cox has spoken once.
Once. It is a slap in the face for colleagues accused of laziness by the government. It is surely a slap in the face for Mr Cox’s constituents. It is a slap in the face to the basic principle that an MP’s first loyalty is to his constituency.
Whether or not such Virgin Island jaunts and high-priced legal fees are within the technical scope of the current rules is, frankly, besides the point and Mr Cox naturally enough denies breaking those rules. If we are to tackle what many see as the growing perception of corruption in our politics, then we need nothing less than a revolution in transparency and a retrenching of financial fair play for MPs.
The foundations for reform are already there in the form of the reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The right thing to do next would be to bring all parties round the table – and non-partisan figures like the chair of the CSPL – for talks on how to turn these reports into action.
We need to be far more rigorous on financial rules, with more stringent declarations and possibly caps on the hours and earnings MPs can put into secondary jobs. If these changes may appear harsh to people like Mr Cox, then they will be having the right effect.
Above all, we need to remind ourselves and our colleagues where our first priority must be – with those who elect us. No one rule or restriction can replace the values that underpin our democracy – it is about rebuilding an ethos of public service rather than self-service.
After some searching, Sir Geoffrey Cox has now been tracked down. His location? The island nation of Mauritius.
I have to hand it to him. For myself, representing one island constituency has been more than enough work and reward. For Mr Cox, it appears there may be no limit to the number of island constituencies a man of his talents can take on.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.
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