Being an MP is a tough job. Anyone representing a constituency in Parliament is under constant pressure and often has to make important decisions that affect people’s lives. MPs are also subject to abuse and threats of violence – two have been murdered in Britain in the past five years. Sometimes, it’s hard to see why someone would want to take on these roles.
But being a member of parliament is also an incredibly important job and any country should expect its brightest and most honest citizens to step forward.
This is why the Westminster government’s handling of the Owen Paterson case is a threat to the entire fabric of British politics. It has damaged the reputation of institutions that exist to keep politicians straight and narrow. Only a concrete reform that increases the independence of the standards watchdog and protects it from further political interference can send the right message that politicians do not condone corruption.
In October 2021, Catherine Stone, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, found that Patterson had violated paid advocacy rules by contacting government agencies that could have benefited two companies that paid him as consultants. This finding was confirmed by the non-partisan House of Commons Committee on Standards.
Amid protests from Patterson and his allies that he was treated unfairly, the government voted for the formation of a new committee to review the entire standard system, an unprecedented number of whipping Conservative lawmakers for effectively blocking the decision. Steps taken – including process. Patterson is being prepared for suspension. When cries of corruption and hoax began in the next day’s newspapers, the government later reversed that vote and announced that it would hold a new round of voting on the situation. Patterson then resigned as MP.
But the damage has been done. Withdrawing the standards decision (and putting excessive political pressure on the commissioner) was the atomic bomb itself. In their vote, lawmakers sent the message that they could reverse the standard recommendation at any time to protect themselves from what they did not like.
When they vote again on the future of Sentinel, they should support a robust and fair standards process. To protect his reputation, he must do more to protect the commissioner from political pressures. They must ensure that the decision to approve their findings is never again viewed as political.
brightest and best
Politics can be really attractive as a career option only when it is considered as a noble and valuable role. It is not a particularly well-paid profession and demands hours. People should feel that they are doing something worthwhile if these sacrifices are expected of them.
Unfortunately, politics in the UK, at least since the spending scandal in 2009, is generally not seen as great. While the UK has below average levels of corruption by international standards, there is a higher than average perception of political corruption. Most British citizens believe that their political parties and members of parliament are corrupt or extremely corrupt.
Research shows that if people consider political corruption to be rampant, a vicious cycle can begin. When politicians have a bad reputation, only unskilled or corrupt people find the job attractive. This, in turn, justifies the terrible reputation of politicians. Thus, whenever politicians seem to ignore conflict of interest and corruption, they not only tarnish their image but also reduce the attractiveness of their jobs.
Having less capacity of a politician increases the chances that a country will be badly governed. It also sets the standard that is publicly acceptable outside of politics. For example, one study showed that when school students became aware of corruption cases among their local authorities, they were more likely to cheat on their cognitive tests. What has happened in the British Parliament in the wake of whether Patterson did something wrong has sent the message that it is socially acceptable to make new rules when existing people find you or your allies guilty.
This means that it is important to have a strong independent watchdog in Parliament. In the UK, the Office of the Standards Commissioner fulfills this role. It investigates whether lawmakers have broken the rules and decides on political punishment if convicted. It could be a suspension from parliament – as was decided in Patterson’s case before eventually resigning. It could also mean giving the MP the right to publicly apologize or allow voters in his constituency to hold by-elections.
Getting outside revenue is not always a conflict of interest and can actually be a good way to improve political expertise. Research has shown that when moonlighting is allowed, it can persuade talented people who would otherwise be able to earn higher wages in the private sector to take up jobs in politics. For example, an outright ban on external advisory roles could affect up to 30 sitting MPs. But it does mean that conflicts of interest within Parliament need to be tightly controlled. Politicians should be able to “moonlight” by making money from outside jobs without doing anything wrong. Meanwhile, if a watchdog is not considered credible, there will always be suspicion that corruption exists – even if politicians have acted reasonably.
Boris Johnson, himself, is an affair. The prime minister has faced scrutiny over the past year in several cases, including those that paid for renovations to his house and vacations. There may be no corruption or conflict of interest involved at all in these cases. But doubts swirl. The judgment of a well-known watchdog can help him draw a line under any questions about his integrity.
On the other hand, a watchdog who operates under constant political threat can neither hold politicians accountable nor effectively absolve them of wrongdoing.