Standards In Public Life

Jonathan, Baron Evans of Weardale, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
photo by Roger Harris; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Seven “Nolan Principles”

All holders of public office are expected to adhere to the seven Nolan Principles:
Selflessness, Honesty, Integrity, Objectivity, Openness, Leadership, Accountability. Do MPs need to have lessons in how to conduct themselves? Or is it one rule for them, and another for the rest of us?

On 25 January, the Commons’ Committee on Standards held a consultation examining the Code of Conduct for MPs. Witnesses included Ian Hislop, editor of satirical news magazine Private Eye, and his colleagues Richard Brooks and Solomon Hughes, who both write about ‘Conflicts of Interest’. 

While the televised debate was a serious matter, Hislop brought some humour to the proceedings (he comes in at 15:03 if you can’t bear to watch it all), at times making it as watchable as an episode of ‘Have I Got News For You’. Asked what he thought about standards in British public life:

“It’s not good is it? I mean, it’s good that we’re here at all after the Prime Minister’s cack-handed attempts to demolish the whole system but, since we are here, post Owen Paterson, I think we have to admit the system failed, in that Owen Paterson obviously had no idea he was breaking the code [I don’t think IH really believes that], and a large number of his fellow MPs decided that they had no idea either [or that either], and that the system wasn’t working.”

Ian Hislop

Code of Conduct

Politicians are obliged to adhere to a code of conduct that states that there should be no conflict of interest between their personal interests and the interest of the public. In order to ensure that no conflict occurs, they are required to declare any ‘benefits’ that they receive on a ‘Register of Financial Interests’. This might include lavish dinners, shareholdings and consultancy work for a company.

The Guardian newspaper reported, back in 2019, that such a conflict of interest had arisen after ​​Paterson appeared to be lobbying Parliamentary agencies on behalf of the clients that he was acting as consultant for.

“It only becomes a scandal when it gains attention, but in reality it’s very, very persistent. You’re not going to shift something as persistent as that, simply by changing codes of practice… We’re decades on from [the introduction of the Nolan Principles, 1995] but we’re still facing essentially the same issue… Just ban second jobs.”

Solomon Hughes

Lobbying

When an individual or a group tries to persuade a public figure, such as a minister or a government official, to support a particular policy or campaign, it’s known as lobbying, and it’s entirely legal. In fact MPs (who are paid £81 932 a year) are expected to lobby on behalf of their constituents in the normal run of Parliament. It may be that a constituency is in urgent need of a new school, or is being affected by pollution, and constituents expect their MP to push the agenda to get more government funding, or see some stronger environmental legislation. 

But MPs using their position in their first job as MP to advance the interests of their employers in their second job are being called out. Hislop was at his best here: 

“What do you think these companies are paying for? Do you think they’re chucking it away? Why did Owen Paterson think he was being given all this money? Because he’s so brilliant? [I don’t think IH believes he is.] I think the public is very sick of being taken for fools. If you’re taking money from a company, what are they getting out of it?”

Ian Hislop

Second Jobs

The Standards Committee has previously argued that Parliament needs “a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise.” But what sort of experience are we talking about here? Questions are being asked about the balance of MPs’ work in and outside of Parliament, and adherence to the seven Nolan Principles of public life. 

Richard Brooks considered that any job that an MP gained simply by virtue of his being an MP, and so having the ear of other influential decision makers within government, shouldn’t be allowed.

“Any job given that is given to a Member of Parliament because they’re a Member of Parliament, rather than because they have some other qualification (doctor, teacher, nurse, lawyer)… then I don’t see why they should have it at all.”

Richard Brooks

Clearly no one would have a problem with Dr Rosina Allin-Khan, Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health, spending time at the Royal London Hospital as part of the family liaison team during the second wave of Covid 19. But what about former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon, who has earned almost £900 000 over the course of 2021 working as a lawyer? During April, May and June he voted on Parliamentary matters by proxy as he was in the British Virgin Islands (a tax haven) when he apparently earned over £156 000 (before VAT) for a total of 140 hours working for Withers LLP (over £1 000 per hour). 

What did Owen Paterson do?

Paterson was investigated by the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards after being accused of breaking lobbying rules for MPs.

He had declared on the Register of Interests that he was consultant to Randox Laboratories Ltd, a clinical diagnostics company (for which he received £4 166 a month for about eight hours’ work – about £500 an hour). He was also a consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods Ltd (receiving £12 000 per annum for about 24 hours a year – another £500 an hour).  

As he’d declared all of these interests, where was the problem? Well, according to the BBC, Paterson made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of Randox about antibiotics in milk, two of which were found by the Commissioner for Standards to have “sought a benefit for Randox and promoted its products and technology.”

He also made seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of Lynn’s Country Foods. He claimed the approaches were to raise “serious wrongs” with officials, but this was rejected by the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, who decided that the contact with officials and ministers were “serious breaches” of the rules, and that it was “an egregious case of paid advocacy.”

Crime and punishment

And so, after such an “egregious case of paid advocacy”, and clear divergence from the Nolan Principles there must be consequences. To be sacked perhaps? Or an insistence that the transgressor resign the posts outside of his first job as an MP? Parliament takes such misbehaviour seriously, and the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards recommended a 30-day suspension. Unbelievably this suspension would only have to be enforced if it was supported by fellow MPs. Yet another case of marking your own homework?

Cash for questions, again?

Some within the government (perhaps concerned that their behaviour might also fall under scrutiny) considered that even this slap on the wrist was unfair, and that it was the rules that needed to be changed. Andrea Leadsom, backed by PM Boris Johnson, sought an amendment to the motion that Paterson should be suspended, and MPs were “whipped” to vote for it (though in spite of the whip, 13 Tory MPs voted against).

The Guardian reported that Chris Bryant, Labour MP and Chair of the Standards Committee said such a move would “be dismantling the rule on paid advocacy which has been around in some shape or form since 1695” and that the public would view it as parliament having “licensed cash for questions.”

The fall-out from the subsequent furore saw the resignation of Paterson as MP for North Shropshire. 

Death of democracy?

In April 2021, well before the Paterson scandal, the Guardian reported on proposed changes to the judicial review process. The Law Society chair, Stephanie Boyce, was concerned that such changes would undermine the rule of law and restrict essential checks on power:

“Collectively, the most controversial proposals would allow unlawful acts by government or public bodies to be untouched or untouchable. This would harm individuals that challenged them and others who might fall foul of the same unlawful act or decision in the future.”

Stephanie Boyce

In December 2021, Dominic Raab’s proposed amendments to the Human Rights Acts, including the power to override rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, were heavily criticised. Barrister Schona Jolly QC wrote on Twitter, “Arguments for asserting democratic control are heavily tainted by the government’s approach to repressive and regressive bills, and consistent attempts to bypass security and accountability in Parliament.”

Finally, following the recent accusations of bullying, racism, and Islamophobia within Parliament itself, a witness for the Committee on Standards proposed that ‘Respect’ might be added to the Nolan Principles that MPs are required to adhere to (and insist that they do – in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary). 

If it happened, an anagram of the Nolan Principles would be “OOH, LIARS.”