Ben Worthy, Cat Morgan and Stefani Langehennig explore the issues with the UK’s system for registering politicians’ financial interests in light of the parliamentary standards commissioner’s inquiry into the Prime Minister.
Last week that it was announced that the Prime Minister is being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS) over his apparent failure to declare as a relevant interest his wife’s shares in a childcare company – Koru Kids – that might benefit from a recent change in government policy.
Sunak was asked when appearing before the Liaison Committee whether he had anything to declare in relation to the childcare scheme, to which he replied “No, all my disclosures are declared in the normal way.” The MPs’ code of conduct requires MPs to be ‘open and frank’ in declaring interests in Parliament.
This is not the first time Sunak’s interests and wealth have come in for scrutiny. But Downing Street has argued that this is all a bit of a mistake, as the interest in question has been ‘transparently declared as a ministerial interest’ in the register for ministers (overseen by the independent adviser on ministers’ interests), which is separate from the MPs’ register of financial interests (overseen by the PCS).
That there are two separate registers is often a source of confusion (and criticism) – ‘though there is some overlap between the two, the ministers’ list typically covers long-term relationships and employment interests rather than gifts of a particular financial value’. The ministerial register is ‘technically stricter’ but is published less frequently, and doesn’t cover all the data MPs must publish, such as gifts. The list of ministers’ interests is not exhaustive – the PM’s adviser on ministers’ interests decides which submitted items are made public.
The latest (much-delayed) list of ministers’ interests was published on Wednesday, after several days of poor headlines for Sunak, and it includes a footnote on the PM’s wife’s shares in Koru Kids.
Downing Street insists this is all a misunderstanding that has now been cleared up – although the Prime Minister may yet be asked to apologise to Parliament subject to the outcome of the investigation. Regardless, the incident highlights some of the issues surrounding the UK’s ‘semi-transparent’ financial interests regime.
As the journalist Peter Geoghegan put it, much of the data that exists on MPs’ and ministerial interests has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for many years, sitting on the respective registers on the Parliament and government websites. Data on politicians’ interests are regularly used by investigative journalists, transparency campaigners and, interestingly, the local and regional press.
Attention has often clustered around scandals, but there is a regular everyday reporting of politicians’ interests from both registers in the national, regional and local press.
While much of this coverage focuses on individuals, there’s frequently also wider analysis and number crunching of various groups, with recent stories on MPs’ links to fossil fuel interests or MPs’ earnings from their second incomes during the pandemic. This kind of analysis has been made easier, and boosted, by the new Sky Westminster Accounts database, which combines data from the MPs’ register with a host of other sources.
However, our study found that information on politicians’ financial interests is, at best, only semi-open. This is partly a technical problem, in that the data is held on two separate systems – but there are also holes and gaps in the data.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, among others such as Spotlight on Corruption, have repeatedly urged the government to address the poor quality and lack of co-ordination between the different sources.
As Sunak’s issue shows, the registers of MPs’ and ministers’ interests are out of sync, and not updated at the same time. This leads to lags and confusing delays.
The public also have a sense that not everything is out in the open. In 2021 a survey found that ‘two-thirds (67%) of UK adults feel the public should know more about lobbyists seeking to influence MPs and Ministers …Only 15% believe the public currently has enough information about who is lobbying’.
Despite these problems, our study found that the registers do have an impact , and even the limited levels of openness leads to some level of accountability. Between 2010 and 2021, at least ten MPs were made to apologise for failures to declare interests (including one Boris Johnson).
In the wake of the Owen Paterson vote of October 2021, when Boris Johnson’s government briefly attempted to protect an MP by dismantling the parliamentary standards system, there was also some positive action. At least one MP self-reported undeclared interests, two admitted possible breaches, and three dropped their second jobs.
This said, the semi-open nature of the UK system creates two interlinked problems.
First, the patchy and hard-to-access nature of the data means many of the high-profile revelations come via undercover exposure. So financial and lobbying issues are often illuminated by scandals or revelations that appear to have been ‘forced out’ or revealed.
This then leads to the second problem. The continual exposure acts to reinforce pre-existing perceptions and views of politicians and lobbying. As Ian Hislop put it, even if relatively few MPs have extensive interests ‘the public perception is: “Is this the tip of the iceberg?”’.
Polling shows that the public are already deeply sceptical and cynical about politicians and money. In a poll in 2021, 65% of those asked felt that ‘most MPs are too easily influenced by the rich and powerful’ with 55% believing there was ‘insufficient transparency’ over ethics and only 31% that MPs ‘act with integrity’.
As importantly, 71% of the public polled felt MPs’ ‘make decisions to a large extent/to some extent to benefit their own financial interests’. A recent report from the Constitution Unit at UCL shows that the public support reform and believe politicians have less integrity than other groups.
The danger is that the poor quality of data, and the semi-transparency this creates, leads to exposés and scandals that reinforce the poor opinions of politicians as a group. This is a particular problem for Sunak, as he promised when he came into office that his ‘government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. If he has to apologise to the Commons for not properly declaring an interest it will further undermine the perception of integrity he has been trying to build.
By Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck University, Dr Stefani Langehennig, Associate Professor of the Practice, University of Denver, and Dr Cat Morgan, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University.