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Time to reform UK lawmakers’ trough feeding

Time to reform UK lawmakers’ trough feeding

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James Snell is a senior adviser at the New Lines Institute. He is writing a book on the war on Afghanistan.

The trading of influence for money is everywhere — and Britain is not immune.

Or so the anti-Brexit campaigning group Led by Donkeys found. They set up a fake Korean company, threw together a website and went on a fishing expedition. In so doing, the activists managed to snare some British politicians touting for extracurricular work.

It was a fairly cheap sting operation, although the numbers involved were quite large.

Four members of parliament bit the hook: Former minister Stephen Hammond, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng and former minister-turned-game-show-contestant Matt Hancock — who were filmed in Zoom meetings, asking for fees of £10,000 per day to consult — as well as Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the Conservative Party’s backbench 1922 Committee, who asked for a comparatively small wage packet of £6,000 per day.

They all say they did everything by the book — including offering disclaimers regarding what is possible to consult on while sitting in parliament. And all four also claim they were, in fact, illegally recorded and entrapped. And each maintain that any investigation into their conduct would find them wholly blameless.

Filmed hunting for free gifts and consulting fees from the gambling industry by the Times, Conservative MP Scott Benton would like to agree. Benton joked that the value of gifts he received often came in, quite conveniently, just below the statutory minimum that would require him to register them and declare an interest, boasting about being able to buttonhole ministers and procure documents for clients in advance of their formal release. He has since lost the Conservative party whip. His career will, one assumes, end in disgrace.

This is a Westminster where second jobs and extra incomes are complained about but fairly common — a system in which many MPs have additional sources of cash. 

Former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi, for example — who was eventually forced to resign as Conservative party chairman for not declaring a fine from the tax authorities — had extensive ties to the political machine of the Barzani family, which runs the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. But these ties only elicited comment and condemnation once he was already on his way out.

The Times estimated that Zahawi had made over £1.3 million for consulting work he’d undertaken for Gulf Keystone, an oil company with drilling locations within KRG jurisdiction, yet only when he was down was Zahawi kicked for having done this.

Meanwhile, it was reported in 2021 that Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski had been pushing for consulting work with Saudi-connected companies on WhatsApp because he had to pay school fees. “I am looking for a position with a company as non exec director or adviser/consultant,” Kawczynski told his fixer. “Obviously my passion for Anglo Arab relations [is] something which could help a company with relations in the UK or Middle East.”

Time will tell if his protestations of innocence and honor hold water with the public. 

When MEPs were arrested for allegedly accepting millions of euros in bribes from Qatar, Morocco and others, the reaction in Britain was muted but smug | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

Despite all this unfolding, however, Britons can still put their fingers in their ears. When other political systems or countries appear to be corrupt, many in the United Kingdom simply smile complacently or laugh, as if this sort of thing only affected foreigners. For example, when members of the European Parliament were arrested last year for allegedly accepting millions of euros in bribes from Qatar, Morocco and others, the reaction in Britain was muted but smug.

Those who were pleased the U.K. had left the European Union beamed — we were “better off out of it” — while the lingering partisans for remaining in the EU, or even rejoining it, first gritted their teeth, then took the chance to think, and tweet, about other things. 

But this practice pervades politics in every country — including Britain.

Transparency International (TI) U.K. recently published a report on the “revolving door” of former ministers, parliamentarians and civil servants in Britain joining companies they’d previously regulated or legislated, in naked bids to influence politics with money.

The report noted that between January 2017 and June 2022, 217 “high ranking civil servants, special advisers and ministers” took up roles in the private or nonprofit sector after leaving government, consulting the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) — the public regulatory body on new appointments for civil servants — on 604 separate jobs.

Big deal, one might say. They did at least consult the regulator. And it’s also true that people do, after all, need to make a living when they leave parliament, government or the civil service, and some jobs will be entirely innocent and independent of their previous appointments.

The report assessed that 29 percent of all these new jobs had what TI calls a “subject overlap,” with the recipients’ previous brief. Just under a tenth of all those seeking ACOBA advice did so because they were formally seeking to join a lobbying firm, while a quarter of all those jobs had “advisory” in the title or description. Though it is a crude measure, TI says it can guess what those ministers, civil servants and parliamentarians were likely to be advising their new bosses about.

Former politicians and civil servants know the regulatory landscape. They have colleagues who still work in government, and when hired by a company, they aren’t taken on because they have unmatched management skills, or because their left foot is just what the company football team needs. They are hired, at least in part, because buying them is a path to political influence.

Jo Johnson, for instance — a former minister, brother to the former prime minister and now peer — went to work for investment bank Elara Capital after leaving office. Or at least he did until the bank was accused by a short seller of aiding share price manipulation and financial fraud in India’s Adani Group. Johnson, a former financial journalist, quit the job, conceding he evidently didn’t know enough about the industry. 

“I now recognize that this is a role that requires greater domain expertise in specialized areas of financial regulation than I anticipated,” Johnson said. He didn’t say why he thought he’d been hired regardless.

Oddly enough, all of this is legal, but when these events land on the front pages of newspapers, the public sees it as politicians crowding around a trough in time for their feeding, just like little piggies.

Many MPs, despite their average earnings of £81,000 per annum — which dwarf average pay — think they are hard up and making sacrifices. 

Jo Johnson — a former minister, brother to the former prime minister and now peer — went to work for investment bank Elara Capital after leaving office | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

They take whatever extra work they can, and from whomever they can, which creates distorting effects. The revolving door not only gives commerce a way to elbow itself into politics, but it also creates incentives for politicians, and even civil servants, to tailor their performance in office to maximize future job prospects.

Unfortunately, there seem to be few solutions to this spate. Increasing parliamentary pay might satiate some of the greediest, but it wouldn’t satisfy for long. Banning second jobs of all kinds might work, but it would also further tighten the pool of prospective MPs.

That being said, this impasse could very well be the platform of the opposition Labour party. And if, as many now predict, Labour wins the next election handily, that could be a mandate for serious, overdue reform.

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