MPs should face a complete ban on working as paid consultants and ministers should be more open about any potential conflicts of interest, parliament’s internal standards watchdog has proposed among a series of new anti-sleaze rules.
Other recommendations in the report from the Commons standards committee include an obligation for MPs to have a written contract for any outside work, available for inspection if needed, and which would spell out that they cannot lobby on behalf of the employer.
Another idea, which the committee said would need cross-party support to implement, would be to limit how much time MPs can spend on outside jobs or other interests, and how much they can earn from them. It acknowledged, however, that it was difficult to see how this might work in practice.
The report also suggests updates to the MPs’ code of conduct to include a ban on members subjecting someone else to “unreasonable and excessive personal attack”, whether in the Commons or by any other means, including social media.
The proposals, agreed unanimously by the cross-party group of MPs and seven co-opted lay members on the committee, are now open to consultation, with the hope that a final version will be put to a Commons vote by Easter.
The committee had been preparing its report before the recent controversy about parliamentary standards as the government tried to protect Owen Paterson.
The independent parliamentary commissioner for standards found that Paterson, then a Tory backbencher who has since resigned, had repeatedly broken lobbying rules, a decision endorsed by the standards committee.
In an effort to save Paterson from punishment, Boris Johnson secured a Commons vote to overturn the verdict and replace the standards committee with a new bodywith a built-in Conservative majority. The plan was abandoned a day later after an outcry.
Paterson’s supporters alleged he had not had a chance for a full appeal. This was not the case, but the committee’s report recommends a senior judicial figure be brought in to examine the current disciplinary system to ensure it is fair.
The prime minister has already suggested both a ban on MPs working as consultants and measures to prevent them from neglecting constituents because of outside work, but a Guardian analysis suggested the proposal would affect fewer than 10 MPs.
Labour has proposed notably tougher rules, including a ban on almost all second jobs for MPs, and a new, independent watchdog for potential conflicts of interest.
The committee’s report says a consultancy ban should cover “parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services”. It also suggests contracts for other second jobs should include a clause preventing such activity, and should be shown to the standards commissioner if needed during an investigation.
The standards committee would also set out in detail which types of work would be barred, the hope being that enforced contracts would pre-empt many conflicts of interest.
Under a proposed “safe harbour” provision designed to encourage MPs to seek advice, they would not be found to have breached rules if they had acted in accordance with official advice.
The committee also suggests amending rules whereby ministers can declare gifts and hospitality in a ministerial register of interests, which is separate to the MPs’ register, is updated much less often and is harder to search. All such gifts should go in the MPs’ register, the report says.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who chairs the standards committee, said: “These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the house. This report is the committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.
“We will consult and hear wider views on what we’ve published today before putting a final report to the house for a decision in the new year. If approved, these robust proposals will empower the standards system in parliament to better hold MPs who break the rules to account.”