Ministers “water down” second jobs ban as MPs back government amendment

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The Commons has backed, by a 297-vote majority (297 in favour with none voting against), a government amendment that Labour warned “waters down” measures proposed to prevent MPs from taking on second jobs alongside their elected role.

MPs met today to debate a motion following two weeks of pressure on ministers over allegations of sleaze sparked by the government overruling an independent sanction of a Tory MP who had committed an “egregious” breach of lobbing rules.

Thangam Debbonaire said the original text guaranteed a vote on recommendations to implement the ban Labour has called for, which would stop MPs taking up “any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant”.

“The Prime Minister’s amendment does nothing but water it down. It is nothing but another example of the government trying to sweep sleaze under the rug,” the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons warned parliament ahead of the vote.

This initial motion was rejected by the Commons, shortly before MPs voted on the amendment put forward by the government, by a 51-vote majority this evening. 231 MPs voted for the opposition day motion, compared to 282 who voted against.

Keir Starmer confirmed earlier this week that his party would force a vote, during one of the few opposition day debates of the session, calling for MPs to be banned from holding paid directorships or consultancies.

Opposition day motions are not normally binding on the government, but Labour said this would be as the text called on parliament to do something – for its standards committee to draw up proposals to implement the ban and guarantee time for MPs to vote on them – rather than the government.

Ahead of the debate this afternoon, Boris Johnson announced in a surprise move on Tuesday evening that he is in favour of a ban but Labour accused Johnson of playing “dirty tricks” after ministers tabled the amendment accepted by MPs today.

It described the proposals from Labour only as a “viable approach”. The amendment also only committed the committee to bringing forward recommendations by January 31st. The original motion would have required the committee to bring forward proposals by January 31st and to hold a vote on them within 15 days.

“The only thing that’s actually on offer to vote for today from the Prime Minister weakens, waters down, takes away the deadline, takes away the vote,” Debbonaire argued, describing the government amendment as a “wrecking amendment”.

“If [Conservative MPs] want to follow through on what their Prime Minister said yesterday, they need to vote for the Labour motion today. Will they?”

Responding for the government today, Jacob Rees-Mogg told those present at the debate this afternoon: “The government believes that it is an historic strength of our system that MPs should have a wider focus than the Westminster bubble.”

Labour MP Karl Turner criticised ministers for “hiding behind the pretence” that it is necessary for MPs to hold second jobs in order to bring additional experience to the Commons as a “defence which people simply cannot believe”.

Rees-Mogg also argued that to “give this motion from the standards committee immediate precedence would be at the same time both impractical and unnecessary”, but he nevertheless claimed that the government wants recommendations to be brought forward quickly.

“What I see with the government amendment is that there is so much wriggle room within it, it resembles a pit of snakes, which I’m afraid some people see us all as,” Labour shadow minister Justin Madders said today.

“Kicking the can down the road simply leaves too much room for doubt that we are not really serious about stamping out the egregious use of this office that we hold so dearly and that the principle of transparency does not matter at all.”

Labour’s Catherine McKinnell today criticised the government decision to reject the suspension. “In our system of parliamentary government, it has quite rightly been the convention that ministers are accountable to parliament,” she said.

“But the current Conservative government seems to take a somewhat different view. It has been content to close ranks to protect political allies from accountability, sees no problem in hanging departmental officials out to dry for policy failures, deflecting blame and avoiding ministerial responsibility.”

The government whipped its MPs to back an amendment rejecting a 30-day suspension of Owen Paterson, but following a backlash ministers U-turned, Paterson resigned and the government passed a motion rescinding the amendment.

Polls show a downward turn in support for the Conservatives since the Paterson row broke. Savanta ComresOpinium and YouGov have shown over the past few days, respectively, a six-point lead for Labour, a one-point lead and the opposition party now being tied with the Conservatives.

In a letter to the Speaker on Tuesday, Johnson wrote that the code of conduct for MPs should be updated so that it can “command the confidence of the public” and said his government is backing two proposals in the report published by the committee on standards in public Life three years ago, which are:

  • “The code of conduct for MPs should be updated to state that: ‘Any outside activity undertaken by a MP, whether remunerated or unremunerated, should be within reasonable limits and should not prevent them from fully carrying out their range of duties”; and
  • “The code of conduct for MPs and guide to the rules should be updated to state: ‘MPs should not accept any paid work to provide services as a parliamentary strategist, adviser or consultant, for example, advising on parliamentary affairs or on how to influence parliament and its members. MPs should never accept any payment or offers of employment to act as political or parliamentary consultants or advisers.’”

Debbonaire described the letter from Johnson as a “bit of a surprise” as the report was published three years ago, adding: “No response from the government up until yesterday when it looked like the Prime Minister was in a bit of difficulty.”

Ian Byrne argued today: “Imagine being on Universal Credit, feeling the pain of the £20 cut has done to your family and hearing the same Tory MPs who inflicted this inhumane policy line up to complain about the ability to exist on £82,000 a year. A salary that put them in the top 5% of earners.”

He added: “We have 15 million people in poverty, 4.5 million kids going hungry, we have a national pandemic that in the past seven days took the lives of 1,035 people. This should be the priority of every MP in this House. Nothing else.”

Starmer used a press conference on Tuesday to outline a series of his own proposals on MPs jobs. The Labour leader said he wanted to ban “all second jobs for MPs”, with very limited exceptions, and proposed a five-year ban on former ministers taking jobs in the sectors they used to regulate.

The Labour leader urged Johnson to “say sorry for trying to the green light to corruption” during Prime Minister’s Questions earlier today. No apology was given but Johnson said it was “certainly was a mistake” to conflate the Paterson case with wider reform related to how MPs’ conduct is regulated.

Polls also revealed recently that 60% of people think the Conservatives give the impression of being “very sleazy”. The majority of public opinion is also against MPs holding second jobs, 68% of whom think they should be banned.

50 Tory MPs have earned more than £1.7m in consultancy fees since the beginning of 2021 alone. The register of interests shows that 90 out of 360 Conservative MPs have extra jobs compared with three from the Labour Party.

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