‘Cash for access’ scandal: What impact will Miliband’s proposals have on MPs and the public?

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, two senior MPs were snared in a sting by the Telegraph in which they appeared to offer access for cash. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband has responded by calling for stringent new limits on MPs extra earnings and work. In this article, Ben Worthy investigates the practicalities of Miliband’s proposals and asks whether they will increase trust in MPs among the public.

In the wake of the latest ‘Cash for Access’ revelation, Ed Miliband has committed to limit MPs’ outside earnings to £10,000 per year and introduce a ban on all second jobs. The Labour party will start tomorrow, using its opposition day to propose a bill on the subject. These proposals fit with a series of steps since the 1990s designed to open up and regulate this area as controversy has grown about extra earnings and work. But how will these latest changes impact on MPs and the public?

In terms of MPs, the two issues are whether the new proposals will be implemented and whether they will work. Implementing a ‘cap’ and (eventual) ban on outside earnings would represent an easy win for a new Labour government in 2015, a symbolic step that would have ‘signalling effect’ for the new government’s attitude towards such behaviour. On a more partisan level, it will hit Conservatives much harder than Labour. Research by the Guardian indicates that this would impact on 63, or 1 in 5, Conservative MPs who currently earn over £63,000 as against only 20, or 1 in 12, Labour MPs. You can see more numbers from the Telegraph here.

However, it all may depend on whether Ed Miliband has the numbers in the new House and what politics exists around the change. As Meg Russell pointed out, a number of things need to align for any reform of Parliament to happen – a mixture of a relevant crisis, political will and the right context. Remember David Cameron’s cutting down of the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

The second question for MPs is whether it will work. The reforms are part of a longer trajectory of change towards regulation and transparency. The danger of is that such change can drive poor activity into hard to reach places, away from publicity and into dark corners. It could also trigger other unwanted debate, such as around what MPs do with their time or, more disturbingly, Members getting a pay rise – new Prime Minister Miliband is not likely to want to propose bumping up salaries to £150,000.

What of the public? The new proposals are designed to help increase trust and put an end to lobbying scandals. One basic question is whether the public will notice. It is claimed that few even know the name of their MP, though recent research has challenged this. The public does support a complete ban on second jobs (see page 6 of this polling) and, as research by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley shows, they do not approve of wealthy MPs, objecting to both the ‘sums and the source’, with a particular dislike of directorships. Their experiment concluded that any sum of money earned while an MP, whether above or below the cap, is problematic.

Whether this will then increase public trust is a far bigger and more complex question. It may reduce the space or room for manoeuvre in this one area. However, hopes of ‘improving trust’ over-simplify how we think and process information – the MPs’ expenses scandal ‘confirmed’ to many that MPs were corrupt rather than ‘revealed’ it to them. Voters generally suffer from  a negativity bias and the continual string of ‘cash for…’ revelations are likely to have fed already deeply held views about UK politics. Nor will it end other sources of Parliamentary controversy, from the revolving door to the picking of leaves. So while it may help change behaviour, looking at the graph below, it appears unlikely any one thing can dramatically improve trust in MPs.

Worthy fig 1

Source: Ipsos Mori; House of Commons Library Research
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Lobbying: why is it so difficult to reform?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

Last week David Cameron admitted that Westminster has a ‘problem’ with lobbyists. Governments have long struggled with lobbying. The Coalition has had its own share of scandal around ‘inappropriate’ influence, from former military chiefs to access to the prime minister.

However, finding a solution is tricky. Like many political issues, the solution depends very much on what you believe the actual problem to be.

Now, MP Patrick Mercer and three peers face allegations of misconduct after a lobbying ‘sting’ by journalists. As of Sunday 9 June, the controversy is spreading to Select Committee chairman Tim Yeo , and questions are being asked about Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby. This is not only a Conservative problem – two of the peers suspended from their party are Labour.

Like ‘expenses’, the word ‘lobbying’ is now synonymous with corruption. David Cameron made this link explicit

“…secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”

In 2012, a report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee pointed out that lobbying is not all bad. Indeed ‘it is a fundamental part of a vibrant democracy’ – lobbying  ended the slave trade and gave us all seat belts. It is also a vital information channel for politicians.

It is the ‘perception of undue influence’ that is corrosive. So, the solution is to regulate and open up the system: sunlight, as a famous man argued, is the best disinfectant. The Coalition government has dusted off suspended plans to introduce a register of lobbyists, requiring third parties lobbying on behalf of others to sign a public register.  But why, given the continued allegations, is it so difficult to do?

How you define lobbying shapes the solution. The government pointed out in 2011 that ‘the scope of the register will in large part be set by the final definition of lobbying’.

In his statement last week Cameron defined the ‘problem’ in a particular way: ‘I think we do have a problem in Parliament with the influence of third parties’ – meaning those lobbying on behalf of others. The Committee had previously said that

“…a statutory register which includes only third party lobbyists would do little to improve transparency…as these meetings constitute only a small part of the lobbying industry. The Government’s proposals only scratch the surface.”

The groups consulted last year also felt a ‘third party’ definition was too narrow. Many ‘could not identify the problem that the register was aiming to solve’.

To further complicate things, any definition is also highly political. Does lobbying include church groups? Charities? And does it include, crucially for Labour, Trade Unions, as Cameron thinks it should?

The Committee overall took a dim view of a third party register:

“We recommend that the Government scrap its proposals for a statutory register of third party lobbyists…the proposals…will do nothing to improve transparency and accountability about lobbying.”

So is there a better solution? For the Committee, a well-functioning regulation ‘would include all those who lobby professionally, in a paid role, and would require lobbyists to disclose the issues they are lobbying Government on’. This would help ‘improve transparency about lobbying, and reduce public concerns about undue influence’ (see more here).

The government should also do more to ensure basic information, such as records of meetings published online, are kept up to date. But even keeping track of when and where lobbying is taking place is difficult. Speaker Bercow has restricted access to passes to Parliament pending an investigation. The site ‘who’s lobbying’ seeks to map who is doing what and where. Yet while having a pass and formal meetings with a Minister can be connected to lobbying taking place, where do you draw the line? Does dinner with an old (ex-minister) friend, who happens to work for company X, count as lobbying?

The key question is whether transparency promotes good behaviour or pushes bad behaviour even further underground. Work by Cornelia Woll and David Coen show how lobbying adapts to new and different systems. For example, the US has some of the strongest transparency regulations around lobbying. Yet lobbying still exerts huge amounts of pressure on politicians – see here and here. The reason is obvious – a study calculated that in lobbying over one tax issue, companies gained $220 for every $1 spent on lobbying, a 22,000% return. With such returns and no agreement on how to define it, no solution or regulation will fully ‘solve’ the lobbying ‘problem’.

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