Last week’s damaging attempt by the government to use its parliamentary majority to change how MPs’ behaviour is policed, to help former minister Owen Paterson, has rightly caused widespread outrage.
The government intervened in a Parliamentary process to prevent Paterson, who had been found guilty by the independent Standards Commissioner in Parliament of egregious breaches of lobbying rules when he acted as a consultant for two companies, from being sanctioned.
It was forced to U-turn dramatically within 24 hours in response to condemnation of the move across the political spectrum, including from usual allies such as the Daily Mail and The Sun.
The attempt to rewrite parliamentary rules in order to protect an old colleague was wrong and shameful. It displayed contempt for independent standards regulators and the rule of law which has seriously harmed the UK’s reputation and tarnished politicians.
The Paterson affair needs to be a turning point where we develop cross-party consensus on upgrading and reforming the UK’s broken standards regime across the board.
Recently political scandals have been surfacing with alarming regularity. There have been ‘cash for access’ allegations, with party donors contributing over £250,000 given special meetings with the prime minister and chancellor.
Then there have been ‘contracts for mates’ – with the government seemingly operating a VIP fast lane for those with personal connections to ministers and MPs to get Covid contracts.
We’ve had the Greensill lobbying scandal, where former Prime Minister David Cameron used his status and contacts to lobby aggressively on behalf of disgraced financier Lex Greensill.
There was ‘wallpaper gate’, where Boris Johnson was accused of failing to accurately declare a luxury refurbishment of his Number 10 flat, paid for by a party donor – as well as freebie luxury holidays, which he has refused to disclose the value of.
And finally, ‘cash for honours’ has reared its head again this weekend with allegations that the Conservative Party has awarded peerages to party treasurers who had donated over £3 million.
That access to ministers, peerages and the services of former prime ministers can apparently so easily be awarded is creating a crisis of integrity in politics.
Unchecked cynicism towards politicians could even exacerbate extremism and violence towards MPs
The rule book for how ministers, politicians and senior civil servants behave is out of date, while regulators set up to hold politicians to account do not have the powers and resources to do so. The current convention-based approach is cracking at the seams.
Up until now these scandals have been water off a duck’s back for the government. As long as they’re ahead in the polls, there’s been no reason for them to do anything about it. Even this weekend, one government minister was still insisting that the Paterson affair was just a storm in a Westminster teapot.
Scandals thus far have tended to be labelled chumocracy, cronyism, lobbying scandals or sleaze. But, in the aftermath of the Paterson affair, senior politicians, commentators and public figures are now openly talking about corruption. It feels like something has changed.
Former spy chief and now ethics Czar, Lord Evans, warned last week that we could ‘easily slip into becoming a corrupt country,’ while former Prime Minister Sir John Major called the government’s behaviour ‘politically corrupt.’
For too long the UK has been in denial about corruption on its own shores, and too complacent about the risks it brings. The naming of recent events for what they are is a welcome wake-up call.
These scandals are hugely damaging to trust in politicians and faith in democracy. Politicians are supposed to be servants of the people, not in the pockets of those who pay them the most.
The cynicism towards politicians generated by these scandals risks fuelling apathy and disengagement from politics by the public. Unchecked it could even exacerbate extremism and violence towards MPs.
They also corrode the social fabric that holds us together: if politicians don’t follow the rules, why should anyone else?
As Dominic Cummings (no stranger to controversy in this regard), put it, ‘the fish rots from the head.’ When being on the make and bending the rules becomes normalised by politicians’ behaviour, corruption becomes entrenched across society.
We need to fix the broken law that is supposed to hold public officials to account where they behave corruptly
And finally, scandals like these seriously undermine Britain’s global reputation as a fair and honest country – as well as our ability to stand up to tyranny and corruption elsewhere. We should be incredibly careful about throwing that reputation away, leaving us languishing in the company of countries like Hungary, Poland and Brazil.
This week’s public debate about what kind of outside interests MPs should be allowed is hugely welcome. But, if we’re to stop the slide into corruption, we need much broader and more ambitious reform.
Here’s what has to happen next. Firstly, the government needs to rapidly and fully implement recommendations made last week by the UK’s top ethics body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the recommendations made by the Boardman review – its own independent inquiry following the Greensill scandal.
That means giving independent regulators who protect standards of integrity in the UK – like the Independent Advisor on Ministerial Interests and the Advisory Council on Business Appointments – proper standing and stronger powers.
It means setting up a central, up-to-date modern register of all the lobbying that’s taking place. It means making sure that public appointments are made on the basis of merit, through a truly independent process, and not ministerial whim.
Secondly, the government needs to fix how appointments to the House of Lords and other honours are made. We need to end the undignified spectacle of Prime Ministers being able to appoint their cronies to the second chamber as a reward for loyalty or donations.
Thirdly, the government needs to ditch plans to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission, and instead bring greater integrity to party political finance.
And finally, we need to fix the broken law that is supposed to hold public officials to account where they behave corruptly, by introducing a new ‘corruption in public office’ offence, as recommended by the Law Commission at the end of last year.
Independent checks and balances on power – including truly independent watchdogs – are the hallmark of a functioning, modern, first class democracy.
It is time for the government to decide whether that is truly what it wants Britain to be.
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