Boris Johnson is under pressure to place further curbs MPs’ second jobs and outside interests after a cross-party group recommended a package of reforms to strengthen the rules around lobbying.
The UK’s parliamentary standards committee on Monday recommended an outright ban on MPs providing paid “parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services”.
At least 30 MPs have recorded earnings from consultancy work, according to the register of MPs’ interests. Under the proposed reforms, a role described as providing “strategic advice” that involved advising on how to influence parliament would be in breach of the rules.
Westminster has been gripped by a sleaze scandal since Conservative MPs voted, at the behest of Johnson, to overhaul the system of parliamentary standards and block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson, who was found to have broken lobbying rules.
After an embarrassing government U-turn led to Paterson’s resignation, the focus of media scrutiny has shifted to second jobs held by other Tory MPs.
The prime minister earlier this month recommended a ban on MPs working as paid consultants or lobbyists. However, the committee has gone further, with a new requirement that MPs must provide a written contract for any outside work which makes explicit that their duties cannot include lobbying ministers, MPs or public officials.
The contract will state that their role cannot provide “advice about how to lobby or influence parliament, and that their employer will give them an undertaking not to ask them to do so”.
Paterson had argued that the majority of his approaches to ministers on behalf of the two companies he worked for fell within the “serious wrong” exemption in the lobbying rules. This permits an MP to approach a minister or public official in a manner that would otherwise breach the lobbying rules if they have evidence that a “serious wrong or substantial injustice” could occur.
The committee proposed a clarification of the criteria for the serious wrong exemption to “make clearer the risks of conflicts of interests and put an end to this being used as a loophole”.
Further proposed restrictions cover the waiting time around lobbying. MPs must currently wait for “six months after the reward or consideration was received”. These restrictions could be doubled to 12 months under the recommendations set out by the committee.
The committee also proposed a new “safe harbour” provision, which will mean MPs cannot be found in breach of the rules if they have sought and followed the advice of the House of Commons Registrar. “This ensures that MPs who seek advice from the experts and follow the rules accordingly cannot accidentally find themselves in breach of the code of conduct,” the report states.
A new rule is also to be added to the code of conduct, which prohibits MPs from subjecting anyone to “unreasonable and excessive personal attack, in any medium”.
Finally, ministers will be required for the first time to record gifts and hospitality they receive in their ministerial capacity with the register of MPs’ interests. The new rules are now out for consultation ahead of final recommendations being published in the new year.
Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of 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.”
Meanwhile, Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, called for a new regulator and a ban on almost all second jobs for MPs. In a speech to the Institute for Government think-tank she announced that Labour would create a new Integrity and Ethics Commission to replace the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which she described as “toothless”.
Labour’s plans would also see former ministers banned from carrying out lobbying or consultancy and the new regulator would have powers to enforce financial penalties.
Rayner accused Boris Johnson of “corruption” and said the prime minister had “polluted our democracy”. She argued that oversight “cannot hinge on a gentleman’s agreement”.
“The current regime is no longer working precisely because we have a prime minister who is shameless in breaking the rules and won’t enforce consequences on others who break them,” she added.