News 01st Mar 2023

A new Parliamentary Code of Conduct marks the first day of spring

Rose Whiffen

Research Officer

Rose is a Research Officer specialising in political corruption. Her work covers issues of money in politics, lobbying, the revolving door and open governance. She was a key researcher and writer of Transparency International UK's 'House of Cards' report which explored access and influence in UK housing policy and contributed to other reports, such as 'Track and Trace', which explored Covid procurement. She's previously held roles at Democracy Club and Spotlight on Corruption, and completed an MA in Corruption and Governance from the University of Sussex.

Press Office
[email protected]
+ 44 (0)20 3096 7695 
Out of hours:
Weekends; Weekdays (17.30-21.30):
+44 (0)79 6456 0340

Related Publication

On March 1 a new Code of Conduct for all MPs comes into force. The revamped rules seek to tighten several provisions to deter lobbying and undue influence in Parliament. One of these revisions introduces a ban on paid parliamentary advice. New analysis from Transparency International UK finds that there are currently four MPs in roles that could fall foul of these reforms, and up to 18 MPs in advisory roles that warrant further scrutiny.

It was back in October 2021 that the Commons’ Code of Conduct was put to the test. Owen Paterson MP was being investigated by the Committee on Standards into whether he had breached the rules, in particular the restriction on paid advocacy. He had approached the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for International Development (DFID) a total of fourteen times in relation to the work of both Randox Laboratories and Lynn Country Foods. The problem was, that at the same time he was contacting these governmental bodies, he was also on the payroll of both companies. This looked an awful lot like he was trying to influence these public bodies in return for cash, known as ‘paid advocacy’. Whilst paid lobbying is banned by the Commons’ rules, to have broken the rules he would have had to fulfil several criteria, including:

  • Did the approaches seek to confer a financial or material benefit on the companies in question?
  • Were the communications exempt from being classed as paid advocacy because they were under exceptional circumstances and met the in serious wrong exemption?

The Committee on Standards concluded on the first point that Mr Paterson’s approaches “clearly conferred significant benefits on Randox and Lynn’s in the long term”. The second point was less clear. The former MP argued that his communications to the FSA and DFID raised awareness of several public health issues – incorrect labelling of bacon products, antibiotics in milk and calibration of laboratory equipment – and so his actions fell within the exemption as they raised a “serious wrong” or “substantial injustice”.

The Committee on Standards were not convinced, to put it mildly. In particular, it was the frequency of the approaches that riled them, noting fourteen “stretched to incredulity’” the idea that his approaches were exceptional.

Whilst the Standards Committee did not accept the exemption applied and continued to conclude that there had been an egregious breach of the rules, this case did highlight one of the ambiguities in the existing Code of Conduct which provided too much room for mischief and misunderstanding. Interestingly, out of the seven cases that have been considered by the Committee since 1995, in two of these cases the Member in question attempted to rely on the serious wrong exemption to justify their actions. In both cases the argument for exemption was rejected.

The new Code of Conduct seeks to tighten this loophole, also known as the ‘whistleblowing exemption’. It outlines that for a whistleblowing exemption to count, there can be no repeated approaches by an MP and that they must state at the outset that they want to raise awareness of a serious wrong. This new provision is a well-considered step in the right direction. It reduces opportunities for paid lobbying whilst also allowing Members to raise legitimate concerns while holding related outside employment. Below we highlight the other main improvements to Code as well as examining what else needs to happen.

The Good

From March 1 the new Code of Conduct will include several positive new provisions which strive to improve transparency, resolve conflicts of interest and tighten the rules around lobbying.

The other welcome reforms are:

  • Prohibiting Members of Parliament from initiating and also participating in proceedings of the House and in communications to office holders on behalf of an organisation that they receive financial benefit from in the last twelve months. Previously MPs were allowed to participate in proceedings but not initiate them and the period was only six months. This addresses long-standing confusion around a distinction between the two and removes the temptation to persuade a fellow Member to initiate a debate, for example, they could then participate in.
  • Requiring Members to obtain a written contract from employers that explicitly states they won’t undertake any lobbying activities. This contract would be available on request to the Registrar of Members’ Interests. This would have the benefit of reminding MPs of the restrictions on outside employment and set clear contractual expectations with future employers.
  • Banning Members from providing paid parliamentary advice. This is a provision which Transparency International UK have campaigned for since 2015 and is a much welcome step to buckle down on roles which skate dangerously close to breaching the paid advocacy rule. These roles erode public trust as they present the perception that MPs are profiting from their prestigious roles as elected representatives. In 2015 we found that there were 73 MPs who were in advisory roles. Our new analysis finds that there are 18 MPs who are currently in advisory roles and, within that, four MPs who are explicitly providing political or parliamentary advice. Two of these who are providing political or parliamentary advice are former ministers. It is highly likely that these four MPs would no longer be able to undertake these roles under the new rules and the further 14 MPs’ roles warrant further inspection.

The Not So Good

One provision that the Government failed to accept was to introduce parity between the reporting of ministers’ and MPs’ interests. Perversely, ministers who wield more power and have more responsibility, are subject to less stringent transparency requirements over their interests. MPs’ disclosures come out every two weeks, whereas ministers’ come out every quarter for their gifts, hospitality and overseas travel, and spuriously once or twice a year when it comes to their shareholdings and other financial interests. The Committee on Standards in Public life, an ethics watchdog, recommended that the transparency of ministerial interests needed to be improved, something we have firmly argued as well.

The government replied that they couldn’t accept this recommendation as Whitehall wouldn’t be ready for it, and work was already underway to improve the publication of ministerial interests, which would come to fruition in the summer. This was the first we’d heard of that, other than in vague and mysterious claims in written statements that the Government was ‘considering the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report’. On face value these are words of reassurance, albeit ones to be treated with caution.

In years gone by, government has repeatedly had several shortcomings when it comes to transparency (see the Institute for Government’s great Whitehall Monitor series and developments on the so-called Cabinet Office’s ‘Clearing House’). So, it’s yet to be seen if departments can live up to ministers’ claims of reform and match the Commons when it comes to publishing these disclosures in a timely manner. Whatever change happens, hopefully it won’t arrive just as everyone disappears for summer recess...