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No second jobs for MPs, declare all lobbying: how Labour can fight corruption

A sickening stench of corruption is in the air. The decision of Conservative MPs to rip up the parliamentary standards regime, simply to save a colleague who had been found guilty of breaching rules, is a scandal. It drags down the reputation of MPs and Parliament, in the eyes of the public.

From cash-for-questions in the 1990s, to the expenses scandal in the 2000s, and the recent bullying and harassment cases in Parliament, it is blindingly obvious that we need firm processes to scrutinise MPs’ activities. After the Tories’ actions on Wednesday, Parliament has no process at all. It now appears the government will be forced into an embarrassing U-turn, which leaves their position murkier than ever.

But there is a bigger picture than any of this. Our democracy likes to pretend that the people are the sovereign, and that our democracy ensures that the state serves the interests of the voters. But it isn't true is it? It is the power of wealth and of the wealthy which is dictating the direction of travel.

The real meaning of all the actions of the Johnson Government signify that the boundaries of the government and other state institutions and the business elite have all but disappeared. We see a fusion of commercial interests and government. You only have to consider for a moment the way in which tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money has been handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic to see what is happening.

In 2013, I warned about the Tory Lobbying Act that “This legislation runs contrary to the spirit of the times in which we live. It permits lobbying by the rich and powerful to continue in an unregulated way and in the shadows, while at the same time it seeks to silence wider civic society.” And that is exactly what has happened. Whilst big business has a free rein in the corridors of power, a host of measures are being taken to quieten the voices of dissent in society.

Boris Johnson’s government is dissolving the boundaries between the government and state and the business elite. Indeed, things have got exponentially worse since 2013. Back then Cameron’s Lobbying Act gave lobbyists a soft ride, but at least they were supposedly on the outside looking in and there was recognition that their activities ought to be controlled.

Now – and particularly during the pandemic – commercial interests are fusing with government, as tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money is handed out to Tory chums. And this week, an experienced former Minister, Owen Paterson, was found by the Standards Committee to have breached rules on paid advocacy - lobbying - on multiple occasions. What we have here is the penetration into the Commons itself of commercial interests. In breach of rules designed to protect democracy from such intrusion.

MPs are meant to declare the financial donations they receive, in a register and when they speak or write on matters affected by their financial interests. This is meant to enhance transparency and thereby to let the electorate see on whose behalf parliamentarians are operating. It would be better of course if MP’s (and Peers) were not permitted to represent private interests other than those of their constituents.

We should ban MPs from holding second jobs. It should be a full-time job to effectively represent 75,000 constituents and one that does not allow time to represent other paid interests. MPs are well paid and receive generous expenses. There is no place for additional employment or payment.

As I set out in my recent Wealth Tax report, such a move is a vital part of a much-needed political revolution to prevent the power of wealth being used to subordinate our institutions.

We should also establish a new Lobbying Register with tough rules, effectively policed. It could cover in-house employees engaged in lobbying, which is currently excluded by existing legislation. Think-tanks that engage in activity classed as lobbying would be required to register, irrespective of whether they received money specifically for this purpose. And they would also be required to declare their funders. A new register could cover lobbying with any employee of government and not just permanent secretaries and special advisers - and also with Members of Parliament and not just ministers. And it needs to tell us more about the lobbying: what was discussed? Too often government departments disclose very little.

The toothless watchdog that oversees ministerial appointments, Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACoBA) needs to be abolished and replaced with a body that is better resourced and more representative of society, and that has the power to really tackle the revolving door. To mandate – not merely advise – and to impose penalties where ministers and crown servants move too quickly into a private business role where they can use their government connections. Parties have a role too. It is well known that in the leadership election that followed Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat I argued for full transparency and a declaration of all donations received by candidates prior to the vote taking place so that members could form a judgement. It is regrettable that this did not happen.

The Labour Party could lead the way. We could indicate that all our candidates for elected office – internally or externally – will promptly declare any donation and that our MPs will sign a pledge before being elected not to take second paid jobs. And we could insist that whenever they encounter paid lobbyists, they will enter that meeting on a public register.

There was a time when British politicians boasted that our democratic practices were amongst the cleanest in the world. They still like to pretend that the people are sovereign and that our democracy ensures that the state serves the interests of the voters. But it isn't true. It is the power of wealth and of the wealthy that is dictating the direction of travel.

The only response now is a root-and-branch transformation to make our public institutions the servant of the people, so that both state power and wealth are required to serve the common good.

This is a noble cause that might clean up our institutions, inspire millions and bring about lasting change. Labour ought to embrace it.

This article originally appeared on Open Democracy

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