Britain’s anti-corruption chief has urged the government to introduce curbs on MPs’ second jobs as soon as possible to address public concerns about sleaze in parliament.
Lord Jonathan Evans, a former chief of MI5 who chairs the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, rejected the idea of a public inquiry into whether MPs should be allowed to hold second jobs.
He told the BBC that the government should instead accept an existing recommendation made by his committee in 2018 that bars MPs from certain types of work, including lobbying.
Westminster has been convulsed by a sleaze scandal since Tory MPs last week voted, at the behest of prime minister Boris Johnson, to overhaul the system of parliamentary standards in a doomed attempt to save Owen Paterson, a colleague who the parliamentary standards watchdog found had broken lobbying rules in an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.
After an embarrassing government U-turn led to Paterson’s resignation, the focus of media scrutiny shifted to second jobs held by other Tory MPs, including Geoffrey Cox. The former attorney-general has come under scrutiny over his role advising a tax haven.
Evans said Johnson’s original plan to rip up the standards system was a “seriously retrograde step” because it cut across the existing, independent process. The peer welcomed the subsequent U-turn and told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that it was “not right to change the system of scrutiny in the middle of a case”.
Evans also implicitly rebuked business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng for suggesting last week that parliament’s independent regulator, Kathryn Stone, should quit.
“I think that role is one that is extremely difficult. The commissioner does come under pressure, [and] we are fortunate in having a person of strong integrity in the role and it’s important. There’s a duty for all of us in public life to support people who take these difficult jobs,” Evans said.
Evans said the existing system ensured corruption was kept out of public life in the UK and should be respected, pointing to the independent judiciary, oversight of the police and “independent scrutiny” of standards. “If we don’t maintain that, if we don’t respect that, then that’s the beginning of falling down into a corrupt system.”
Cox, a barrister, has found himself in the spotlight over his legal work that has earned him millions of pounds while also representing the constituents of Torridge and West Devon. MPs are allowed to hold second jobs while sitting in the House of Commons, although they are subject to certain rules.
Earlier this week, footage emerged that appeared to show Cox using his Commons office for his second job, which involved legal work for the government of the British Virgin Islands. Cox’s office said in a statement on Wednesday he did not believe he had breached any rules.
Labour has called for the independent parliamentary standards commissioner to assess whether Cox’s use of his Commons office was a breach of the MPs’ code of conduct. This states that any facilities paid for by the taxpayer should only support an MP’s “parliamentary duties” and that MPs’ use of public resources should not “confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves”.