All candidates standing in May’s general election should be forced to disclose whether they intend to have a second job while in parliament, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has told the Observer.
Lord Bew said in the wake of the scandals surrounding former cabinet ministers Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, parties urgently needed to enact a change to address “depressingly low” levels of trust in politicians.
In his first comments since the latest scandal, Bew, who reports to the prime minister, said: “It would be foolish to ignore that we are in a new and worrying place. This is something that could be acted upon. If the parties decided to do it quickly, they could do.”
Bew added: “It is important for public confidence that the House of Commons is not seen to be influenced by the prospects of personal gain.”
Last week, the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches alleged that Rifkind and Straw, foreign secretaries under, respectively, John Major and Tony Blair, had offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for thousands of pounds.
In the fallout, Rifkind announced that he would not contest the general election and would also stand down as chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee. Both men are now suspended from their parties. Straw had already announced his retirement as an MP before the scandal broke.
The events raised the question of whether MPs should be allowed to take second jobs. During a tempestuous prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for a ban on the holding of paid directorships and consultancies.
Bew said that his committee, which was established by Lord Nolan in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal 20 years ago, was now of the opinion that parliament needs to show that it is listening to concerns.
He said that all candidates at the election should provide information about their current working lives and their intentions with regard to second jobs.
Bew said: “They are really riding for a fall, in our view, unless a more proactive approach is taken to these issues.
“When the first report was carried out by Lord Nolan the public was a lot more relaxed about second jobs. It is now not, if you look at the latest polls. There are changes in public opinion and there is greater disengagement with politics.
“Precisely because politics has become more elitist, more apparently to the public, an insider’s game, it is all the more important to get the rules right.
“The public’s belief in high standards in public life has dropped and is depressingly low.”
Bew said that his committee had sought reforms to the lobbying process, and had previously championed a limit on the outside earnings of MPs, only to be ignored. The committee, he said, had repeatedly been “pointing out the risks” that had become apparent in the latest scandal.
He said: “We have been arguing for change in and around lobbying, and we are frustrated we haven’t been able to get Commons movement on it. We think that would have been helpful in the background to the current issues. We definitely believe parliament needs to take a more proactive approach.”
He added: “All candidates for parliamentary elections should publish at nomination a register of interests, including paid jobs. What we would expect them to be transparent about is whether they expect to continue with those roles. If the public feels that they have been brought into a decision on this matter, that can only be helpful …
“I am absolutely sure [the prime minister] is concerned about this stuff. We just can’t allow this malaise to continue.”
According to a new Opinium/Observer poll, 40% of the electorate say they would be happy if an MP’s basic salary went up, if it meant that they were banned from outside earnings, while 34% disagreed. In June 2013, 36% agreed and 39% disagreed.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010