Parliament to vote on banning MPs working as consultants

16 November 2021 7 min. read
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Labour Members of Parliament plan to force a vote in the House of Commons, considering whether MPs should be barred from holding paid directorships or business consultancies. According to reports in the British press, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer has also argued there should be a wider ban on almost all second jobs for MPs.

During a phone-in appearance on LBC radio, Labour Leader Starmer said of barring working with commercial consultancies, “We’re putting that down… It’s for every MP to decide how they want to vote on that. But that will perhaps be a measure of where people are on how we actually move this forwards.”

The news came as Starmer claimed he wanted to find a way forward from “a terrible two weeks” prompted by the government’s decision to block punishment for former MP Owen Paterson, after he lobbied on behalf of companies who were paying him. In the weeks since the corruption allegations against Paterson, Westminster has been in a state of perpetual turmoil.

Parliament to vote on banning MPs working as consultants

Having served in David Cameron’s first cabinet as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Paterson returned to the Conservative Party’s backbench in 2014, but the influence he gained from the role is at the heart of the present scandal. While still sitting as an MP, it emerged that Paterson earned £8,333 per month, for a monthly commitment of 16 hours as a consultant for the healthcare company Randox Laboratories.

In March 2020, the Northern Ireland based business was awarded a £133 million contract from the Department of Health and Social Care to produce testing kits during the coronavirus pandemic, at a cost of £49 each. No other firms were recorded as being given the opportunity to bid for the work, and it was later revealed that Paterson represented Randox in a call with James Bethell, the Minister responsible for awarding contracts to the private sector during the pandemic in April 2020. Just six months later, Randox landed a further uncontested £347 million contract.

Disciplinary procedures

After these details came to light in October 2021, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards determined Paterson had breached paid advocacy rules, having made three approaches to the Food Standards Agency, and four approaches to the Department for International Development, in relation to Randox. He also received £12,000 for 24 hours work per year from Lynn's Country Foods; a Northern Ireland-based processor and distributor of sausages, which he was found to have made  seven approaches to the Food Standards Agency on behalf of.

A statement from the Commissioner noted Paterson had "repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the house into disrepute" and that "no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests." The Commons Select Committee on Standards then recommended that Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for 30 sitting days.

A motion to carry out those recommendations was due to be voted on in the House of Commons. If it had been approved, it would have enabled a recall petition to be triggered in Paterson’s constituency – threatening the potential of a by-election, and a marginal possibility the Government could lose his seat. The Conservative Party would still have retained a healthy majority of more than 70 MPs, were that to occur, and the scandal might well have also died down once Paterson was seen to have paid for his apparent transgressions. However, Conservative backbencher, and former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Andrea Leadsom intervened.

Putting forward an amendment which would delay consideration of Paterson’s suspension, and set up a new committee to investigate the disciplinary process for MPs, the press noted the move was unprecedented. Boris Johnson’s Government supported the amendment, and issued a three-line whip – the most severe party disciplinary threat possible – to ensure MPs backed it, and the amendment duly passed 250-232.

With Paterson seemingly reprieved, the amended motion then passed in a further vote. It noted concerns about potential defects in the standards system, and resolving to appoint a cross-party Select Committee to consider whether MPs should have a right of appeal, whether to reconsider the case against Paterson, and how the standards rules should be revised to be "compatible with natural justice."

“Sleaze” scandal deepens

However, it soon became clear opposition parties were not willing to participate in the new Select Committee. Instead, they took allegations that the Government had closed ranks, and ‘moved the goalposts’ to help its MPs avoid disciplinary measures for breaches of Parliamentary conduct. Faced with heavy criticism in the media and from MPs, the Government reversed its position, announcing a vote would still take place on whether Paterson should be suspended. At this point, Paterson announced his decision to resign from Parliament.

Speaking to the Guardian, Labour sources asserted a belief that the vote, which would take place as part of an opposition day debate in the middle of the week, would have legal force. However, even if it does not, the move threatens to focus attention on the issue as the Conservative Party defends seats in several byelections – including one to replace Paterson.

More widely, Starmer said, there was a strong case for outlawing all second jobs for MPs, aside from a handful of exceptions with a “public service element,” such as MPs who do shifts as doctors, or who are in the army or police reserves. Starmer himself earned money from legal work in the past, in addition to his job as an MP, according to the Commons register of interest. The barrister and former director of public prosecutions, was paid almost £26,000 for work carried out while he was an MP, however he gave up his certificate to practice when the Labour Party pledged to ban second jobs, with specific exceptions, in its 2019 manifesto.

Indeed, the issue looks likely to be significantly more damaging for Conservative Party in terms of public opinion. Further Guardian research found that half of all ministers who have left office in the Boris Johnson or Theresa May governments later took up posts with companies relevant to their former government jobs. Of those who left departmental ministerial roles up until the most recent reshuffle, more than 50 took up employment as advisers in industries where they had government expertise, or as more general political consultants. At the same time, many of them still sit in one of the two Houses of Parliament – where they occupy second jobs in addition to their work as lawmakers.

Showing just how damaging this might be to the incumbent Government, a survey carried out for the Times newspaper recently put the Conservatives level with Labour, while a poll on soon after for the Daily Mail put Labour six points ahead. While this is unlikely to factor into the byelections the Government is contesting in relative strong-holds, were the Prime Minister to press ahead with rumoured plans for a General Election in 2022, he might find the process much less a forgone conclusion than previously thought.