UK govt vows to toughen rules for lawmakers after ethics row

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the media regarding Britain's COVID-19 infection rate and vaccination campaign, in Downing Street, London, Monday Nov. 15, 2021. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP)

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday proposed a ban on lawmakers acting as “paid consultants” and promised to tighten ethics rules in response to scandals over lobbying and outside jobs that have tarnished U.K. politics.

Johnson said lawmakers should be investigated if they were “neglecting their duties to their constituents and prioritizing outside interests,” and should be banned from acting as “paid political consultants or lobbyists.”

He promised to seek cross-party support for changes to the House of Commons’ code of conduct.

“It is imperative that we put beyond doubt the reputation of the House of Commons by ensuring the rules which apply to MPs are up to date, effective and appropriately rigorous,” Johnson wrote in a letter to Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

Members of Parliament are allowed to earn outside income as long as they declare it and it does not shade into lobbying. But there has been widespread criticism of politicians having second jobs since it was revealed that one lawmaker from Johnson's Conservative Party, Geoffrey Cox, earned 400,000 pounds ($540,000) a year as a lawyer while serving in Parliament.

The proposals backed by Johnson would bar members of Parliament from peddling influence and ensure that any outside work did not interfere with their duties.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said Johnson's measures appeared to be "a significant victory for us in our work to clean up politics.”

The proposals are an attempt to stem a tide of criticism over ethics that began last month when the House of Commons standards committee recommended that Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson be suspended for 30 days for lobbying on behalf of two companies that paid him more than 100,000 pounds ($137,000) a year.

Usually, such decisions are rubber-stamped by lawmakers, but the government ordered Conservative legislators to oppose the suspension and instead call for an overhaul of Parliament’s standards process.

The government changed course the next day after a furious backlash. Paterson resigned from Parliament, but lawmakers on Tuesday formally endorsed his censure.

House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is a member of the Conservative government, conceded it had been “a mistake” not to suspend Paterson.

“We expect all members to abide by the prevailing rules of conduct. Paid lobbying is wrong, and members found guilty of this should pay the necessary penalties,” Rees-Mogg said.

Labour lawmaker Thangam Debbonaire said the government had treated the rules with “disdain, frankly incompetence, and a total absence of leadership.”

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, a Conservative, said the government’s behavior had been “ill-judged and just plain wrong.”

“Let’s be clear: this is not a party political issue,” May said. “Damage has been done to all members of Parliament and to Parliament as a whole.”

The Paterson case was fuel for allegations that Johnson and his government don’t follow rules that apply to everyone else.

Johnson himself has been criticized for accepting expensive vacations on the Caribbean island of Mustique and in Spain. He also faces investigation by Parliament’s standards watchdog over the source of the money that was used to refurbish his apartment in the prime minister’s official Downing Street residence.