openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Is Britain a corrupt country? Here’s why it’s impossible to tell

Everything is broken about the system that registers parliamentarians’ second jobs. Only the government can change it, but they like it that way

Alastair Tibbitt
13 November 2021, 6.00am
Owen Paterson resigned after being found to have broken parliamentary rules
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PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In the last fortnight, a series of sleaze scandals have rocked the Conservative government, but often these stories are based on information that has been in the public domain for weeks, months and even years.

So why now?

Well, one reason is that it’s not easy to find out about parliamentarians’ second jobs. Almost everything about the system for publishing the Register of Members’ Financial Interests – those dry declarations that all politicians have to make about their income – is suboptimal, if not outright broken.

Instead of easily searchable public documents, the register documents are published as PDFs buried on the official parliament website. They are almost impossible to find, analyse and follow for anyone.

It’s not real transparency – it’s a kind of transparency theatre. And of course, most politicians like it this way.

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Many of my openDemocracy colleagues bear the scars of working with these various parliamentary Registers of Interests, even if they know that time-consuming analysis can produce agenda-setting scoops.

As our investigations editor, Martin Williams, pointed out on Twitter, you can access a register in one of two ways. One, as a giant PDF file. Urgh. Yuk. Or, wait for it, as 650 different web pages.

Worse, the data format is not standardised or audited by anyone at all. This means it is filled with seemingly innocuous errors, such as spelling mistakes, and is missing important information that should be disclosed.

One minor error might seem trivial. But at scale, all these errors and omissions add up to make the register impossible to analyse systematically.

Haphazard approach suits our rulers

In 2016, Williams’ analysis found that 40% of entries for MPs and Lords were missing company directorships that should have been declared. This makes it a full-time job simply just matching politicians up with other public records. And there is little evidence that anything has improved. In September, his work looking into the House of Lords sparked a probe into 24 Lords for failing to post proper details on their Register of Interests.

Another failing is that there is no standard way to report income. Therefore, some politicians report their outside income as an hourly rate. Others report it as a one-off fee. And then there are those who report it as an annual retainer or even a vague, “I expect to receive…” number pulled out of the air.

This makes it very hard to analyse the register at scale or compare the earnings of one politician with another.

As for getting an alert if your local MP declares something new? Forget it.

Williams called for MPs to fix it in 2016. Yet, nothing has been done, despite successive sleaze scandals.

And, of course, this is just the system for the mother of all parliaments. Zoom out to the myriad of other public institutions in the UK and the picture is even more dispiriting.

Researching local authority registers of interests in 2020, I even found that one council in Northern Ireland would not supply their councillors’ register of interests in any electronic format, even when served with a formal Freedom of Information request.

They insisted that someone should travel to examine the register in person, and that this was the only way that the information could be provided. For a moment, I thought I had been transported back to 1920.

That council may be an outlier. But I found that many other local authorities only published their councillors’ register of interests in virtually illegible, handwritten formats that had been scanned and published online as PDFs.

Many councils even claimed that their historical Register of Interests records had simply been binned

And as for past registers, it turns out that there is no law that forces public bodies to keep these documents, despite the fact that they may one day be vital evidence in an anti-corruption inquiry.

Even worse, many councils even claimed that their historical Register of Interests records had simply been binned.

The situation is little better with the UK’s bigger devolved institutions. The Scottish Parliament apparently toyed with publishing MSP’s register of interests as open data that could at least be read and analysed by machines. Its experimental data set for this register of interests has not been updated since 2016.

With the help of grant funding, openDemocracy started working with the Open Data Services Cooperative to try to fix this mess. We even built a website as a proof of concept. You can find it at declared.info.

We wanted to build a Google for Registers of Interests. If we had a specialist search engine that would work across multiple institutions, we could start to ask some very important questions of our public servants, and save a lot of people an incredible amount of time.

For example, it is currently impossible to find out how many UK politicians have worked for or received hospitality from the betting industry. No one has the time to analyse all the Registers of Interests of all the public bodies in the UK, even if you could find them.

If it were possible to search an updated database that spanned multiple parliaments and councils, then it might be possible to see a complete picture of what is actually going on. We might be able to get a proper breakdown of the figures from each political party. We might be able to see how things have changed over time. We might be able to track politicians as they move between institutions. We might be able to understand the true scale of lobbying in the UK.

And yes, people might be able to properly hold our elected politicians and the private interests that court them so assiduously to account.

I would be the first to admit that declared.info falls a long way short of this ideal.

To bring it this far, skilled coders at Open Data Services had to build complex scrapers to turn the published information into some kind of usable format that could be searched by a machine. These are costly to run and expensive to maintain. Even when they work, they still can’t magically fix data that is hideously inconsistent in the first place.

Really, this is not a problem that civil society should have to fix.

Making true transparency a reality would require public bodies to publish their Registers of Interests in an open, standardised format. As part of our project, we proposed how this standard could work.

But the only way that Registers of Interests could become fixed across the country would be if politicians passed a law to make it happen. What do you think the chances are of that happening?

Despite all the heat of the last few weeks, you won’t find proposals to fix the Register of Interests on top of any politician’s agenda.

If you want to write to your MP to ask them to improve standards in public life, openDemocracy has built a tool to make this easy. It will only take you a few minutes and you can find it here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.

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