Dark Money Investigations: Opinion

I told the UK Parliament how to fix corruption… nobody listened

The Owen Paterson scandal doesn’t surprise me; MPs shouldn’t be trusted. That’s why Westminster is plagued with scandals

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Martin Williams
4 November 2021, 1.26pm
Yesterday the government voted to axe watchdog that found Tory MP guilty of breaking lobbying rules
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Kiki Streitberger / Alamy Stock Photo

It is one of the most egregious acts of government corruption that the UK has seen in years. Tory MPs voted to axe the public standards watchdog after it had the temerity to find their colleague, Owen Paterson, guilty of breaking rules by lobbying for a firm that won hundreds of millions worth of COVID contracts.

Paterson would have received only a 30-day suspension from the Commons for committing the most serious breach of standards, but this mattered little to his colleagues on the government benches. The whole system had to go, they decided, to protect one of their own.

Ironically, transparency campaigners have been calling for wholesale reform of parliamentary standards for years. But now it's being done for all the wrong reasons – and the effect will be chilling.

Back in 2016, I was unexpectedly invited to Parliament, to talk to the Committee on Standards about how to clean up politics. Naïvely, I thought they might be interested in actually shaking things up a bit.

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I had just written a book about corruption in Westminster, which – among other things – revealed that 40% of companies run by MPs go undeclared on the official Register of Interests. It showed just how common serious conflicts of interests are in Parliament and how the system of ‘transparency’ was open to abuse.

Owen Paterson's behaviour may have been a particularly “egregious case of paid advocacy”, as the parliamentary standards commissioner said. But it comes against a wider backdrop of sleaze and conflicts of interest, which large parts of Westminster are mired in.

A truly transparent system is one where we don’t have to trust politicians, we just have the facts

I sent the committee my written evidence in advance, including a seven-point plan for how to end Westminster’s sleaze problems. “The entire system is framed in a way which serves and benefits insiders, rather than the public,” I wrote.

But when I got there, I quickly realised that this was not a serious attempt to improve things. In fact, three of the six MPs sitting in front of me had been found in breach of the rules themselves. Even the chairman (who has since been replaced).

These were politicians tasked with reviewing the very rules they had broken. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn’t seem keen on improving transparency or accountability.

Instead, they asked trivial questions – like whether regulators should use more social media, and whether the rulebook should be made shorter and easier to understand. There was even talk of printing the code of conduct on the back of MPs’ lanyards. “This is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,” I said.

Sleaze and corruption are a monumental problem in Westminster, and it won’t be fixed by simply making the rules a little more ‘clear and intelligible’. Nor will it be fixed by another toothless watchdog, or a non-binding pledge to be more transparent. Instead, what’s needed is a complete rethink of the kind of system we want.

Trust vs transparency

Politicians shouldn’t be trusted. That’s why Westminster is plagued with scandal after scandal. The system places far too much trust in them.

It may sound cynical, but this is not an argument against politicians: plenty of them are perfectly trustworthy. And even if they’re not, parliamentary democracy is still our best option.

But a truly transparent system is one where we don’t have to trust politicians. We shouldn’t need their assurances over corruption and lobbying, because we should be able to simply see the facts for ourselves. That’s what transparency is.

Westminster’s approach, on the other hand, has always been to trust politicians and ask questions later. But to avoid sleaze, we need to reverse this way of thinking.

It’s a crime for Welsh MSs to fail to declare financial interests. Why isn’t it for Westminster MPs?

Instead, the government's plan means giving more power to MPs to police themselves. This is the kind of thing corrupt dictatorships do, not modern democracies.

But Parliament's standards system has always been farcical, where the idea of transparency and accountability is an afterthought. It’s hardly surprising because historically these things literally were afterthoughts. Rules and regulations have gradually been tacked on to the archaic system over the past few decades – usually only in response to scandals. Even when the first register of MPs’ financial interests was established in 1974, the rules said: “Members are responsible for their entries; the House will trust them in this respect.”

The one notable exception to this is MPs’ expenses. After the scandal in 2009, responsibility for expenses was handed over to an independent body and, although MPs are still occasionally called out for making dodgy claims, there’s no doubt that the process has been hugely cleaned up.

But that didn’t happen because MPs were suddenly less corruptible characters, or because ethical standards just naturally improved. It’s a result of taking trust out of the equation and putting transparency first.

Seven-point plan for reform

Root and branch reform is the only way out of this problem – but it’s clear that this won’t be instigated from within unless there is real pressure from voters and the media. But if that’s the case, we need to know what we actually want.

So, here is my seven-point plan, which I sent to Parliament’s standards committee in 2016, for cleaning up Westminster.

Of course, this is far from a finished plan. There’s much to be debated here, and probably some aspects that I’ve got wrong. But if we are serious about fixing corruption in Westminster, we need to go back to basics, putting the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability first.

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Those of us who make these arguments are often accused of tarring all politicians with the same brush. But this misses the point: we should not be talking about the honesty and integrity of individuals (as important as those things are). Instead, we should reframe this conversation to focus on transparency and accountability.

1) Make it a criminal offence for MPs and peers to fail to declare financial interests. This is already the case in devolved governments like the Welsh Assembly, so why should Westminster be any different?

2) Ban MPs and peers from voting on issues where they (or companies they’re paid by) stand to gain from the decisions being made. Again, similar rules already apply in other democratic bodies.

3) Even if second jobs are not banned completely, the rules on disclosure should be expanded to include all financial and property interests, all outside jobs (including unpaid jobs), and all company directorships – without exception.

4) Publish the Register of Interests in an accessible spreadsheet format, which provides a sortable breakdown of the details. This should include the unique company number for each business interest and a standardised method of reporting external income.

5) Establish a fully independent auditing body, which conducts regular checks of the Register of Interests to ensure declarations are accurate, comprehensive and timely. At the moment, parliamentary authorities have no idea whether the information they’re publishing is accurate or not. Despite constant news stories revealing the interests they’ve failed to declare, politicians are still trusted with this. A parliamentary commissioner can investigate alleged breaches, but that’s usually only done when a complaint is made.

6) Make MPs publish the contracts for any outside jobs they have and publish these online. (Similar rules used to exist for certain types of lobbying jobs, but somehow this was changed a few years ago).

7) Scrap the Select Committee on Standards, the parliamentary commissioner for standards and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and hand responsibility to an independent organisation. All of the existing regulators have become marred with accusations over the years, and the fundamental problem with them is that they are too close to the people they’re supposed to police. Some are toothless; others act like they’re toothless. These groups should be working for the public, but too often it seems like they’re a defence barrier for politicians.

All of these things can be done. But looking at Boris Johnson’s government this week, do you believe they will be? I doubt it….

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