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MPs’ outside interests - reasonable limits?

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The Committee is looking again at what is meant by reasonable limits for MPs’ outside interests, how the recommendations the Committee made in 2009 have been implemented, and how they operate in practice.

We announced our review last year, and have been collecting evidence, and conducting further research on this issue and now - after a short pause while we published our report on intimidation in public life – the Committee is turning its attention to whether ‘reasonable limits’ are being upheld.

Interest in the nature and scale of outside interests held by MPs has been a feature of this Committee’s work since Lord Nolan presented his first report to the Prime Minister in 1995 following the ‘cash for questions’ scandal.

Lord Nolan’s Committee concluded ‘MPs should remain free to have paid employment unrelated to their role as an MP’ alongside important recommendations to improve and enforce standards including increased transparency financial interests and conflicts of interest.

And in 2009 as part of its high-profile inquiry into MPs’ expenses, the Committee was asked by the then Prime Minister to look again at the thorny issue of outside interests for MPs.

At that time, the Committee’s chair, Sir Christopher Kelly said:

We understand why this should be a cause of concern if it happens on a scale which risks distracting MPs from their main role or which creates a conflict of interest. Provided such activity remains within reasonable limits we take the same view as our predecessors, that it should not be banned. It can bring valuable experience to the House of Commons and the income from it can help to preserve independence from the whips. However, we believe that it should be limited in scope and transparent, and that information about candidates’ outside interests should be explicitly drawn to their constituents’ attention at the time of elections.

The 2009 Committee did not define in strict terms what ‘reasonable limits’ were: believing it was for individual MPs to consider what was appropriate within this framework and be able to publicly explain this to their constituents. We asked in our public consultation if there is a need to explore further and to elaborate what is meant by ‘reasonable limits’ and are ​now ​considering the responses.

In October 2017, the FT reported that around 30% of MPs had some form of outside interest. These range from continuing to practise as a lawyer, doctor or nurse, occasional journalism or company directorships. Others are consultants, run charities, or are local councillors.

In 2015 I argued that Parliament must take a more proactive approach to these issues, and at recent parliamentary elections we have recommended that candidates should publish at nomination a register of interests, including any jobs they intend to continue if they are elected. The public expect candidates to be transparent about whether they expect to continue with those roles when they cast their vote.

Our short report will be published in the summer and will, I hope, be a useful contribution to this long-running debate. What is clear to us is that the public’s tolerance for a lack of clarity regarding MPs’ outside interests is diminishing, and at the MPs need to do something about this issue to rebuild trust in Parliament.

Follow the Committee on twitter for regular updates on its work @PublicStandards

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