Watchdog outlines probe into MPs’ second jobs

Committee on Standards in Public Life investigation will examine the case for beefed-up rules on extra work, and the potential for conflicts of interest

By Jim Dunton

31 Mar 2017

Anti-corruption watchdog the Committee on Standards in Public Life has revealed the frame of reference for its new probe into the acceptability of MPs taking on additional work outside of the House of Commons.

The details put flesh on the bones of the “short investigation” on MPs' outside interests announced by committee chair Lord Paul Bew last week, and which is designed to feed into the Commons Committee on Standards’ on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs. 

News of the mini inquiry followed former chancellor George Osborne’s announcement that he planned to become editor of the London Evening Standard, in addition to other high-paying financial advisory work and public speaking engagements, while continuing as MP for Tatton, in Cheshire.

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Terms of reference for the probe, published today, say it will seek to establish what factors should be used to determine the “reasonable limits” placed on MPs’ outside work interests, which was the phrase used by the committee to allow parliamentarians leeway to undertake additional work in 2009.

The inquiry, which is open to submissions until April 28, also seeks views on the extent to which MPs' outside work can lead to actual or potential conflicts of interest, and how this could be different for MPs, ministers and ex-ministers, chairs of select committees, and MPs holding other parliamentary roles.

Other questions include whether there is sufficient transparency around MPs’ outside interests, and whether new rules or guidance is required.

The committee, founded in 1990s as part of the Major government’s response to multiple sleaze issues among MPs, is not responsible for investigating individual cases.

That duty falls to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which vets applications made by former ministers and senior officials for permission to take up work outside of government.

ACOBA has yet to publish details of its view on Osborne’s proposed Evening Standard role, but approved his other jobs at Blackrock Investment Institute, the Washington Speakers Bureau, and as chair of his own Northern Powerhouse Partnership think-tank, with caveats.

In a letter to Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee published earlier this week, Bew insisted his committee remained of the view that ACOBA had a “vital role in advising on propriety issues” and that all cases needed to be considered individually.

However he warned that the current system required ACOBA to be “given the respect and time it needed to fulfil its role” in conjunction with a general spirit of transparency and media scrutiny.

“If this does not happen, it is likely that there will be growing pressure for some form of statutory intervention,” he said.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2009 report on MPs’ expenses and allowances specifically identified journalism as one area of extra-curricular work that should not be prohibited for MPs, within the “reasonable limits” proviso. 

It added that such work “should be transparent and information about it should be drawn to voters’ attention at election time”.

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