MPs could face investigation for launching “excessive” personal attacks online, and the rules around ministers’ gifts and hospitality could be tightened, under a package of reforms put forward to clean up Westminster.
The Commons Standards Committee also set out plans for an outright ban on MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategic services – echoing recommendations made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in recent weeks.
And it announced that a “senior judicial figure” would be asked to review whether the House’s current system for dealing with alleged breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct is fair, following claims from former minister Owen Paterson that he was denied “natural justice” in the process.
The committee’s report will be the subject of a consultation before a final set of recommendations is published in the new year.
The proposals would add a new rule to the code of conduct banning MPs from subjecting anyone to “unreasonable and excessive personal attack” in any medium.
The committee and Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone are concerned that social media has allowed personal attacks which do not break the law to be “widely disseminated” in a way which “can be regarded as disreputable”.
The Standards Committee, made up of a cross-party group of MPs and lay members, also proposed reforms to require ministers to publish more details about their interests.
Mr Johnson has faced criticism from Labour for declaring a free holiday at a villa owned by the family of Tory peer and minister Lord Goldsmith on the list of ministers’ interests but not on the parliamentary register which could require the publication of more details such as the value of the stay.
The Standards Committee said “it is manifestly inappropriate for ministers to be subject to fewer and less onerous standards of registration of financial interests than Members who are not ministers”.
Having ministers’ gifts and hospitality included on the Commons register could leave them open to investigation by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner, rather than Mr Johnson’s adviser on ministerial interests, Lord Geidt.
Other recommendations in the report include:
– A new requirement for MPs to have a written contract for any outside work which makes explicit that their duties cannot include lobbying ministers, fellow members or public officials.
– Tightening rules to prevent MPs claiming they were acting to prevent a “serious wrong” as a loophole for lobbying.
– Increasing from six to 12 months the period during which lobbying is banned following receipt of a payment from an outside interest.
– Introducing a new “safe harbour” provision so MPs can be protected from investigation for potential breaches of the code of conduct if they seek out and follow the guidance of officials before taking up a role.
The focus on “sleaze” at Westminster follows the case of former minister Mr Paterson, who was found to have breached lobbying rules and faced the prospect of a 30-day suspension from the Commons before quitting as an MP.
Mr Paterson and his allies claimed he was denied justice because of the lack of an appeal process in the system.
The report said there is “effectively a right of appeal” against the findings of the commissioner because her recommendations are considered by the committee, and an MP who is the subject of an investigation could try to persuade the committee “that they are in the right”.
But the committee acknowledged there is “no meaningful right of appeal” against its recommendations on sanctions in individual cases, which are put to a vote in the Commons with no provision made for the hearing of evidence.
The judge-led review would consider options for an appeal process, although the committee noted that there are problems with all the proposed solutions.
Standards Committee chairman Chris Bryant said: “The past few weeks have seen a number of issues raised about MPs’ standards, but the key overarching issue here is about conflict of interest.
“The evidence-based report published by my committee sets out a package of reforms to bolster the rules around lobbying and conflicts of interest.
“These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the House. This report is the committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.
“We will consult and hear wider views on what we’ve published today before putting a final report to the House for a decision in the new year.
“If approved, these robust proposals will empower the standards system in Parliament to better hold MPs who break the rules to account.”
Downing Street said it would “engage closely with the proposals and consider them carefully” but refused to be drawn on when the Government might respond to the recommendations, with a consultation open until Easter.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I obviously thank the committee for their work, particularly the recommendation to take forward the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s proposed ban on MPs acting as paid political consultants or lobbyists, which is something the PM put forward to the Speaker earlier this month.
“We will carefully consider them but we haven’t set a timescale for when we will respond.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson was disappointed the committee had not taken forward his suggestion that there be a time-limit placed on MPs’ outside work, the No 10 spokesman said he was “not going to get into responding to individual recommendations”.
Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said the report was a “welcome step” in recognising that the “processes around lobbying need addressing and that conflicts of interest need nipping in the bud”.
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