Two weeks ago when I penned my last column, I referenced the outrage over the case of an MP – a Conservative – who had been adjudged guilty by the Standards Commissioner of wrongdoing by lobbying Government Ministers on behalf of companies which, according to some reports, paid him around £100,000 per year to do so.
In case we need reminding, the Standards Commissioner, in issuing her findings, stated that this was “an egregious case of paid advocacy”, and that the MP “repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant”.
Fast forward two weeks and, if an example were needed of how vested interests work to muddy the waters and obfuscate the facts, we certainly have one in the form of how a debate on MPs being paid by corporate entities to lobby quietly behind the scenes has suddenly morphed into a debate about MPs having second jobs, as though the failures here were about double-jobbing rather than corruption.
Don’t get me wrong: there are serious issues to consider if MPs are spending a significant amount of time pursuing personal business interests. Most MPs and their staff work a full week and more on behalf of constituents so if an MP is also earning a second wage working for outside interests earning £100,000 a year, as in the Owen Paterson case, someone somewhere isn’t getting value for their money and it’s almost certainly the taxpayer.
But the real issue here is paid advocacy: MPs misusing their position in Parliament and Parliamentary resources to lobby on behalf of their clients.
I know of colleagues from across various parties who undertake other duties, such as serving on a board or as a trustee of a worthy cause, or who have a stake in an established family business. Some in regulated professions, such as doctors or NHS workers, need to perform occasional work to stay on their professional register. Some undertake occasional journalism – usually when they have been campaigning on an issue and get approached to write an article about it. For clarity, payment for the article you are reading is neither offered nor sought. This newspaper does a public service by offering up space to the MPs and MSPs in the area it serves so they can share their thoughts with you, their readers, on the events of the day.
I am not arguing that MPs should have no outside interests, simply that they should not take up time that should be spent representing constituents, nor should it be seen as a lucrative means of making huge piles of cash. If the UK Government is serious about having stricter rules around lobbying and paid outside interests – and I believe these issues need urgent action to address them - then it needs to go back and start from the position that, fundamentally, it is simply incompatible being an MP and also being paid huge retainers of thousands, or tens of thousands of pounds each year by corporate interests to sidle up to Ministers and engage in special pleading for special treatment for special clients.
The Prime Minister has said that those who break the rules “must be investigated and should be punished” – he must now come good on his words and commit to a full public inquiry.
Those responsible must be held to account – including the Prime Minister himself.