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The new front for parliamentarians' reputations and a future hardening of political regulation

Posted on 7 May 2021

With the whirl of tiny pencils in voting booths across the country, a potentially seismic change in how politicians are held to account has flown under the radar. While the votes are being counted, now is a perfect time to discuss this change, and the ones that may follow. 

Confidentiality introduced, and now removed

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is one of the key pillars for enforcing proper conduct of Parliamentarians. The role is currently held by Kathryn Stone OBE, and its remit is carefully defined. It primarily covers:

  1. ensuring MPs’ compliance with registering financial interests and restrictions on paid lobbying (rules 11 to 18 of the Code of Conduct); and
  2. considering allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct against MPs under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).

The ICGS was only added on 19 July 2018, in the midst of a long-running Westminster bullying and harassment scandal. 

Parliament decided that confidentiality ought to attach to those being investigated for ICGS issues, to calm concerns of a ‘witch hunt’. 

However, controversially, Parliament seized the opportunity to extend confidentiality over everyone else being investigated by the Commissioner, not just if it related to bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct. The subsequent changes to Standing Order 150 tore down the Commissioner’s online list of those currently under investigation, and meant she could no longer even confirm or deny if an MP was under investigation for non-ICGS issues. 

The Chair of the Committee on Standards resigned in protest.

Recent developments

On 21 April 2021, the pendulum swung back, as Parliament amended Standing Order 150 on the Commissioner’s recommendation, so that confidentiality would no longer cover non-ICGS issues. Therefore, from the week commencing 10 May 2021, the Commissioner will return to publishing the names of those under investigation for failure to comply with registering financial interests and restrictions on paid lobbying. 

Given this will immediately follow the local government results across the UK, the list's release could be overshadowed by election results. However, with the current media and community interest in ‘scandal and sleaze’, there is no guarantee that the list will escape public scrutiny.

As such, if a MP knows they are under investigation and this is not yet public, they may be intensely considering their reputation management strategy, rather than the coming days' trickle of election results.

A potential tool for political reputation management 

Beyond the clear public interest of applying greater exposure and scrutiny to those under investigation by the Commissioner for non-ICGS issues, it could also provide Parliamentarians facing groundless allegations of sleaze with a new reputation management tool. 

In bringing the motion to the House of Commons on 21 April 2021, the Leader of the House, Mr Rees-Mogg, set out its impact and this additional tool (which we underline for emphasis):

the motion will give the commissioner the authority to publish a list of continuing non-ICGS investigations and to confirm or deny whether a non-ICGS matter is being looked into, as she did prior to 19 July 2018. In addition, following my discussions with the Committee, in circumstances in which significantly incorrect information about allegations has been made public, it will now be possible for the injured party to apply to the commissioner for a public rebuttal to be issued, either by the commissioner herself or by the injured party, with her express prior approval of the text.”

When looking at the statistics for complaints for April 2020 - March 2021, a sizeable chunk of MPs have faced accusations that were not accepted by the Commissioner: out of 1,726 complaints to the Commissioner that year, only 0.9% were accepted for inquiry. 

The 0.9% acceptance of complaints show the group of MPs facing unfounded allegations who may benefit from this new tool could be sizeable.

The case of Ian Paisley Jnr

The investigation into Ian Paisley Jnr's family holidays is a prime example of how transformative stripping back confidentiality from non-ICGS cases could be.

Ian Paisley Jr first apologised to Parliament in July 2018, after having been suspended from Parliament for 30 days for breaching the rules on paid advocacy and registering financial interests. He had enjoyed two undeclared luxury family holidays to Sri Lanka and then wrote to the Prime Minister to urge him to oppose UN sanctions against the country. A year later, in July 2019, the BBC announced its journalists had uncovered more undeclared luxury holidays, this time to the Maldives. The Maldives allegations were covered by confidentiality. The public was unaware an investigation by the Commissioner had even been instigated until 15 months later, when the Commissioner released her findings. The MP had previously implied no such investigation was underway. The Commissioner also found that Paisley Jnr had unnecessarily delayed her inquiry throughout.   

Publishing a list of those under investigation will greatly increase the scrutiny of MPs. This increased accountability is likely to transform how MPs respond to Commissioner investigations, and make delaying a Commissioner's investigation more problematic.

Hardening of the regulatory environment 

As with every scandal, whether it be the financial crash or MPs' expenses, a hardening of the regulatory environment tends to follow in its wake. 

Those engaged in Parliamentary politics - whether as donors, parliamentarians, ministers or Whitehall civil servants - ought to be mindful of how the flood of recent revelations about Greensill, Dyson and the funding of the Prime Minister's home renovations and childcare could heighten the appetite to harden the regulatory environment for politics. 

The clearest indication of what this hardening could involve is the Institute for Government’s recent report into 'Improving ethical standards in government'. Amongst its recommendations are:

  • Current ministers: provide the independent adviser on ministerial interests with the power to both initiate his own investigations into possible breaches of the Ministerial Code and to publish the findings.
  • Senior civil servants: all their interests in private sector companies should be published.
  • Former ministers (including PM): the ban on lobbying government should be extended from two to five years.
  • Former civil servants: they are currently subject to business appointment rules – as are former ministers – but these rules ought to be put on a statutory basis, and made legally enforceable through fines. The report states that the "government has argued recently that the current 'moral and reputational pressure' resulting from the rules means that no legal powers for enforcement are necessary. The Greensill case has shown that this is clearly not the case".

In this environment, where some changes are coming and some more sweeping changes may follow, it's important that those in politics are well advised as to the changes, and what this may mean for them.  

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