News 16th Jan 2023

Westminster Accounts: Turning transparency into accountability

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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Sometimes the most interesting things are hiding in plain sight. That’s certainly my main take away from the Westminster Accounts – a collaborative, public-interest driven delve into the financial affairs of our politicians by Sky News and Tortoise Media. Despite staring regularly for hours on end at things like the long lists of MPs’ interests (probably for too long), you can still miss curious facts that are sitting right in front of you.

For example, take the donations made by an obscure company called IX Wireless that’s ruffled residents’ feathers in the North West. They’ve donated substantial sums to a range of MPs – beneficiaries, it turns out, who didn’t know till very late on who the identity of their benefactor. That their office block seems empty and their accounts are…erratic, to say the least, adds to the curiosity.

Or perhaps the very generous amounts spent by the government of the Cayman Islands to fly a group of MPs over to celebrate the territory’s 60th birthday. Given the expenses paid were far greater than many families’ holiday budgets for the next five years (or more!), one can be forgiven for asking what they might have sought in return for this generosity. A friendly voice to protect its lucrative secrecy industry, perhaps?

Now these kinds of revelation are easily dismissed as a Westminster storm in a teacup. All too familiar to public interest journalists is the refrain that ‘scandal’ is little more than North London tittle-tattle, with no relevance to most peoples’ lives. Those profiled are also probably (depressingly) right in assuming that (mostly) the public will have forgotten these stories and moved on by the time it comes round to polling day again.

More scathing are those critiques which claim these exposés do nothing but reinforce an unfair perception that all politicians are out for themselves, putting a whole range of good people off getting into politics for good. Transparency, goes the argument, has done more damage than good in public life and should be best ditched at the earliest opportunity. I’m sure many with the power to enact these regressive reforms would agree.

I would counsel these views are missing the point.

To their credit, Sky and Tortoise have not sought to over-sensationalise their findings. A substantive part of their work has been to try and make an array of sources more accessible to the wider public, many of which aren’t available in the most user-friendly formats. Where they have asked questions, they’ve done so with an open mind and without over-egging their claims. Seriously, why are foreign governments allowed to pay to take MPs and Peers on overseas jollies, when any other political donation must come from specific UK sources?

What they’ve done is hold up the mirror to our political class and ask: is this what we have become? And rightly so. It’s fair to say British politics is going through a crisis of sorts, and one that doesn’t seem likely to end soon. At the heart of many dysfunctions in our body politic is money. While not the sole cause of our woes it is frequently present – from the award of peerages to questionable COVID contracts and planning decisions that bypass the sage advice of officials. It is even a national security issue.

While having key facts out in the open doesn’t stop bad behaviour, it helps make it more accountable when it happens. Those who brief against the virtues of transparency either have short memories or are wilfully ignorant of what went before – the 90s was a comparative dark age and hardly a model for propriety in public office. Fundamentally, the benefit derived from being able to follow the money far outweighs the inconvenience caused to those who have to report it, and long may it continue. The government and Parliament would be wise to take a leaf out of Sky and Tortoise's book by making the financial interests of ministers and members more accessible.