UK parliament engulfed in growing sleaze row over second jobs

The sun sets behind the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye attraction on the banks of the River Thames in London on Dec 8, 2020.
(NIKLAS HALLE'N / AFP)

LONDON – Britain's parliament was embroiled in a growing sleaze scandal on Wednesday as allegations of lawmakers being paid for external work which may have breached parliamentary rules dominated news headlines.

The question of lawmakers having second jobs has come under renewed scrutiny over the last week, after Boris Johnson's government sought to change parliamentary conflict-of-interest rules to protect a colleague threatened with suspension.

The furor is reminiscent of the 1990s when Conservative Prime Minister John Major's government was hobbled by allegations of sleaze, and shows no signs of slowing as reporters continue to delve into potential breaches of parliamentary rules

Parliament's standards watchdog had determined Conservative Owen Paterson committed an "egregious case of paid advocacy" by using his position to promote two firms that paid him.

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While Paterson ultimately resigned, Johnson's handling of the affair badly damaged party morale, and several leading names in the party are now under the media spotlight.

Newspapers have reported Conservative Geoffrey Cox, a former attorney general, used a proxy voting

system set up to accommodate lawmakers working at home during COVID-19 to take part in votes from the British Virgin Islands, where he was advising its ministers in a corruption inquiry initiated by Britain's Foreign Office.

The Register of Member's Financial Interests, where lawmakers have to declare external earnings, shows Cox is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for his legal work.

While carrying out external work is allowed, The Times newspaper published a video on Wednesday which appeared to show Cox taking part in a legal hearing from his parliamentary office, an apparent breach of the rules. No one was available at Cox's office to comment to Reuters.

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Opposition Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner described it as "a brazen breach of the rules and an insult to taxpayers" and said she had written to the Commissioner for Standards asking her to investigate the allegations.

Nor did the government appear prepared to defend Cox. Health minister Sajid Javid told Sky News lawmakers should not use facilities funded or supported by the taxpayer for external work. "The rules are clear," he said.

The furore is reminiscent of the 1990s when Conservative Prime Minister John Major's government was hobbled by allegations of sleaze, and shows no signs of slowing as reporters continue to delve into potential breaches of parliamentary rules.

Britain's political establishment was similarly rocked in 2009 when a national newspaper published details of lawmakers' expenses, revealing widespread misuse which sparked public anger and led to some politicians going to jail.

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While Johnson has a majority of 77 seats in parliament, he is facing pressure from a cost-of-living crisis as inflation rises, and a renewed bout of hostilities with Brussels over Northern Ireland that could damage trade ties.

Among other cases highlighted in the media on Wednesday was that of former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who the Guardian reported was paid 25,000 pounds a year to advise a hand sanitiser company while chairing a government taskforce which recommended new rules benefiting the firm.