The head of the most senior ethics watchdog has called for some form of limit on MPs’ second jobs, telling Sky News it is “hard to argue” some politicians are putting parliament first.
MPs should be given an “indicative” ceiling on how much time to spend on their extra-parliamentary roles, according to an interview with the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans.
The crossbench peer, who spent his career in the secret service and was head of MI5 for six years, today praises the “valuable” work by Sky News in the Westminster Accounts project which has spent the last seven months examining the role of money in politics. He today uses a major interview to push for change.
In a rare wide-ranging interview, Lord Evans also:
• Criticised the attempt by Boris Johnson’s government to change the standards system in response to the Owen Paterson affair as “not the right way to behave. That can’t be the right way to behave in public office.”
• Said there were “very disgraceful” episodes over the last three years involving breaches of parliamentary standards.
• Pressed on Mr Johnson’s leadership, he said: “The tone from the top, the leadership is very important…. The way that leaders behave will set a tone that others will follow.”
• Said it was still too hard to identify the ultimate donor of money in British politics, the system isn’t transparent enough and “there are still risks of foreign money coming into the political process here”.
Lord Evans says that Sky’s Westminster Accounts project highlights how there remains a problem with some MPs and the amount of time they spend on second jobs.
“There have been some quite well-documented cases where it’s hard to argue that this person is putting their main focus on their parliamentary duties, given the amount of time that they appear to be giving to other activities.”
Lord Evans, who steps down after his five-year term expires in the autumn, says it is for parliament, not his committee to set precise rules, and concedes this exercise is “difficult”. Nevertheless, in his interview he says MPs should try again to achieve this.
“We’ve suggested that one might want to give indicative figures in terms of hours. So far, the parliamentary authorities have not decided to go down that route, but we think there are attractions in that.”
The former prime minister Boris Johnson proposed a fixed limit to second jobs in the wake of the lobbying scandal involving former Tory MP Owen Paterson, but later abandoned the plans in the face of a Tory backbench revolt.
In this parliament, from December 2019 until he stood down in June, Mr Johnson earned £5.1m, more than any other MP.
Theresa May, another former PM, has earned £2.7m, the Westminster Accounts tool produced by Sky News together with media company Tortoise shows.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life does not investigate individuals and instead makes suggestions on how to change the rules directly to the prime minister, so Lord Evans would not comment on individual cases.
Asked he if was disappointed the most high-profile figures – ex-PMs – also earn the most outside the Commons, he replied: “I think the critical thing is it needs to be clear to the public and particularly to people’s constituents that the priority afforded by MPs, whether they’re well known or whether they’re less known, is on the interests of their constituents and of serving in parliament and not focusing on their own economic or other career interests.”
Lord Evans also issued a stark warning on the failure of the government and parliament to pass stricter rules on donations.
In stark criticism of successive Tory administrations – including that of Rishi Sunak – Lord Evans said: “One of the principles of public life is openness, and I don’t think there is enough information about where money is coming from.
“I don’t think it’s easy to identify who is giving money. I think there are still risks of foreign money coming into the political process here.”
Earlier this year, Sky’s Westminster Accounts series highlighted how donations direct to MPs – which do not go through the Electoral Commission – go through a less rigorous checking process than other donations.
Lord Evans continued: “We made a number of recommendations on this. The government has not accepted those. We think that’s a mistake.
“We have been assured and this has been said repeatedly by the government, that the rules are strict and rigorous. That’s not our view. The rules are not strict. They are not rigorous and they are insufficiently transparent.”
He suggested that companies can be used to disguise the source of foreign donations, which are illegal under the UK political system.
“The .. first problem is lack of real openness. And just to say ‘I have been given money by company X’, when you can’t work out where company X got that money from (and) who actually controls that company, is really not a satisfactory way of discharging responsibility for openness.
“And it’s also very important that we can protect the political system from an improper influence, whether that’s from business interests, whether that’s from extreme political interests, or whether that’s from foreign powers. And transparency is a really important part of that. And the transparency rules at the moment, in our view, the view of my committee are not strong enough.”
Lord Evans declined to criticise Mr Johnson by name but made clear his unhappiness with the way the former prime minister behaved at key moments.
Lord Evans singled out for criticism the Owen Paterson affair, highlighting “someone who was clearly breaching the parliamentary rules (who) went through due process and there was an attempt to change the rules in the middle of the process. That’s not the right way to behave. That can’t be the right way to behave in public office”.