News 14th Feb 2020

In defence of paperwork: why reporting financial interests is really important

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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Reporting. What does that word conjure up: bureaucracy; administration; red tape? I’m sure it does not elicit bounds of enthusiasm. Therefore, it is completely understandable why those who have to report get it wrong, or forget to file in the first place. Their minds may be focussed on much more important things like ‘real work’. I’m sure many of us have thought this exact same thing: paperwork is an obstacle to real progress.

Yet, it is much more than just simple desk work, detracting from getting the job done. It enables accountability. You report to your boss to prove you have not just been twiddling your thumbs. Companies report to shareholders to show they have been managing their investment wisely. Government reports on public spending to allow scrutiny of how it manages taxpayers’ funds. Without this reporting there is an evidential void, and by extension an inability to hold those involved to account. And without accountability, mischief lurks.

This is why MPs must report their financial affairs. It is not revolutionary to say that mixing money and power raises the risk of impropriety. History is littered with examples, and unfortunately this is not something confined to distant memory. You may recall, not too long ago, there was a slight kerfuffle over Ian Paisley Jr MP who had failed to report a rather expensive family holiday in Sri Lanka. How was this relevant to his role as a parliamentarian, you may ask? Well, it turns out the Government of Sri Lanka picked up the bill – figures are disputed, but it is somewhere in the region of £50,000 – £100,000 (astonishing amounts in that context) – and in return he lobbied the UK Government on their behalf.

Initially, the holiday was not reported. Subsequently, investigative journalists uncovered the facts and he was reported to the Commons’ authorities. Then, the investigation found he had breached Parliament’s rules – for failing to report and lobbying in return for payment – and suspended for long enough to trigger a petition on whether or not he should face a by-election. In the end Ian Paisley Jr got off the hook. Thanks to, let us say, the local political dynamics he survived the petition and was re-elected again at the subsequent general election in December last year. However, since then he has faced similar charges regarding another holiday in the Maldives.

So these are not trivial matters. Reporting is a means of holding those in power to account. Therefore, failing to report or misreporting is an evasion of accountability. This is why our Prime Minister needs to get things straight about who paid for his holiday last December. Now, to his credit he did report he went on holiday, paid for by someone else, which is better than his past performance. However, this has thrown up more questions than answers.

The Daily Mail alleges the reported sponsor, Mr David Ross, of this break did not pay for it – he merely suggested the location. This begs the obvious question: who did? We can assume that because he did report something he did not pay for the holiday himself; MPs do not have to report what they spend their own funds on. Ross claims he merely facilitated the accommodation, so possibly the resort provided the benefit in-kind, though this is not yet confirmed. It would be prudent of the Prime Minister to clarify the facts as soon as possible. However, for the time-being it is disputed and therefore, despite what a Downing Street spokesperson claims, it is unclear whether he has followed the Commons’ reporting requirements.

This is not the first time the Prime Minister stands accused of reporting misdemeanours. During the last Parliament, the Standards Committee – charged with recommending sanctions for MPs who fail to comply with the House’s rules – issued a final warning: ‘Should we conclude in future that Mr Johnson has committed any further breaches of the rules on registration, we will regard this as a matter which may call for more serious sanction.’ If he fails to provide convincing answers to this mystery, what will be the consequence?