Anti-sleaze: will banning second jobs harm the quality of Parliament?

December 4, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Boris Johnson moves to support banning MPs taking on additional employment in advisory and consultancy roles, resulting in pre-emptive resignations such as Ed Davey’s dip from Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF).

What does this mean?

Close to 40% of MPs have a second job outside serving their constituents, although the majority of these are not advisers or consultants. The pressure behind the proposed ban comes from whether MPs can do right by their constituents if they spend time in another role, even if it’s for a good reason. Advisory and consultancy roles can be politically inclined, and many Ministers have returned to the same field or industry in the past. So while the rules on lobbying and MPs are strict and well-established, there is still a question as to whether conflicts of interest come to light. For example, pay rates in their second jobs can be higher per hour than the MP salary, like Ed Davey earning £5,000 for 6 hours in his role at HSF. Although there is an interest in maintaining professional skills in industries that require certifications (such as lawyers, doctors or nurses) does an MP’s interest in a certain industry always create conflict with their parliamentary role?

What's the big picture effect?

While MPs are allowed to have second jobs in line with their Code of Conduct, public opinion and opposition parties are now questioning how effectively MPs are held to account. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an independent officer of the House of Commons tasked with overseeing MPs) has the power to investigate adherence to the Code if there are substantive grounds to do so. However, recent events such as Owen Paterson breaking lobbying rules, and 10 MPs avoiding taxes by accepting payments through personal companies, have sparked a hostile response. If the regulatory standard is simply to declare the details of additional income, rather than to actively investigate, it has been suggested that capping hours or earnings would enforce accountability more effectively. This would enable MPs like Davey, who revealed that his additional income funds care for his severely disabled son, to supplement their income without significant impact to their parliamentary role.

The 1995 Committee on Standards in Public Life expressed that “full-time professional politicians would not best serve the interest of democracy”, suggesting that a broad range of experience in Parliament can only enrich the work that MPs do to represent their constituents. As for the legal profession, Parliament could be missing valuable expertise and perspective if former lawyers are not able to continue practicing while being MPs, as they will be exposed to the issues they legislate for. Additionally, it may have a long-term benefit should they be appointed into “law-officer” positions, as they would be in the best form to give advice to the government. This view is shared amongst some MPs, but just around 20% of people still support the notion. Liberal Democrat politician, Wendy Chamberlain compares those with additional political advisory and consultancy roles to “defendants in a court case taking part in the jury”. There is a heightened risk in allowing MPs to have these jobs of conflicts of interest, which could tempt MPs to lobby or bypass their primary role for higher fees. Alternatively, Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown suggested that the current declaratory approach should remain, and constituents should decide whether their MP is entitled to additional income. In the court of public opinion, the next general election will be the judge.

Report written by Emma Hooper

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