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MPs' outside interests – testing public expectations

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Alongside the wide evidence-gathering for the Committee’s current review of MPs’ outside interests, to be published in the summer, it has undertaken some focussed, qualitative public opinion research to test the public’s view on these issues. A summary of these events will be published alongside the report. In this blog, Committee member Jane Ramsey discusses the headline findings from recent focus groups:

What are MPs’ working lives like? Why is there concern about MPs' outside interests? What are reasonable limits for outside interests? What kind of information do the public need to make an informed judgement about their MP’s interests? These are the sorts of questions the Committee has been discussing at its regular meetings and talking to a wide range of contributors about, as part of its evidence gathering for our current review.

Almost ten years on from the Committee’s 2009 report, in the wake of the expenses scandal, that MPs’ outside interests should be within ‘reasonable limits’, our review will consider how the Committee’s recommendation at that time can be put into practice. As part of that, we also want to know the public’s expectations of sitting and future MPs.

While media and social media comment and coverage can be a useful indicator of public concern, it has long been the Committee’s view that it is important to test our understanding of the public’s mood and view with appropriate research. Indeed, our research with the public over the past twenty years is a freely available resource for academics and others. Public opinion is cited in support of views on outside interests at both ends of the spectrum: on the one hand the public are wary of a professional political class, and on the other they are concerned about distracting outside interests. We wanted to develop an understanding of the detail of what the public actually think about MPs’ outside interests.

Our indicative, qualitative research allowed us to explore participants' attitudes and opinions in detail, giving us an insight into the key reasons underlying their views. The two focus groups, held by polling agency DeltaPoll, certainly had a lot to tell us and were far more nuanced in their views than some media headlines might suggest.

What we learnt from those groups was that impressions of MPs – and understanding of their working lives – are conditioned by two types of experience: isolated incidents where paths cross physically, or a result of an issue raised in writing and through media impressions which tend to be through a negative lens if they are reported in national tabloids or more positively if reported in local newspapers.

If you read the tabloids you are only going to get the worst of it. You’re going to see some form of scandal…but if you read the local paper you’ll tend to see the actual impact they have in their local area.

There are contradictory impressions of MPs and how they fill their time, on the one hand:

I’ve seen them on the news, speaking in Parliament, and when they pan out there’s hardly anybody there. And I’m thinking, what are they doing?

And on the other:

They are more hard working than we are aware of because a lot of the work they do and time they put in isn’t visible and that is a matter for them

When it came to outside interests, some participants likened the role of an MP to other occupational roles where their time is regulated and managed like those of most other working people:

Quite a lot of employment contracts actually don’t allow people to take on another job. Or it has to be with the permission of the employer. Why should that not apply to a member of Parliament?"

"I would be ultimately staggered if there wasn’t some form of guidance to them on what they can and can’t do in their role."

"You’re an MP, you’re already being paid to look after our best interests so you don’t need to go to another company and get more money.

Research participants were uniformly of the view that there should be no tolerance of conflicts of interest and that there should be reasonable limits on the amount of time MPs can spend on outside interests but held more subtle views on the acceptability of certain types of outside interests. For example, occasional journalism was seen as much more acceptable than more time-consuming roles.

I don’t see a problem where let’s say once a month an MP sits on a board meeting as a non-exec member and advises on legislation."

"If they spend a few hours spare at the end of the week then fine, but not spend two hours as an MP…

And, given their largely negative perceptions of the culture at Westminster, they felt that where ‘reasonable limits’ on outside interests remained vague in definition and implementation, they expected full transparency. Some said they would be interested in accessing this information, especially at election time. Others said that even if they had no intention of ever looking it up information placed on the register, transparency offers a check on the culture, allowing those who might have a need to call elected representatives to account.

…through transparency yes, absolutely. It’s a deterrent. If you know its recorded and out there for the public if they want it, the chances are you are not going to abuse it.

These views – and those of other interested parties including MPs and former MPs, academics, think tanks and others – will be part of our considerations as we form our recommendations for change. Our evidence-based, independent report will make recommendations for changes to the Code of Conduct for MPs, and for Parliament and Government more broadly, and will be published in July. I look forward to saying more then. 

More information about the work of the Committee is available on our website.

You can also follow the Committee on Twitter @PublicStandards

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