Register of interests of MPs’ staff is open to potential abuse

  1. The register of interests of MPs’ staff is open to potential abuse because it’s solely the responsibility of the staff member to make appropriate disclosures on the register. The registration form to declare relevant interests requires that individual’s signature only. There is no formal requirement for the MP to validate in any way the information disclosed. It is therefore legitimate for MPs to be unaware of the accuracy and completeness of disclosures by their staff. MPs aren’t even apparently expected to be curious about these declared interests. There isn’t a written rule that MPs must be aware at all times of the declared interests of their staff, for example. Ignorance is thereby sanctioned for MPs, allowing them to avoid accountability. Wrongdoing is easier when MPs have a free pass to avoid accountability in this way. It is harder for others to identify wrongdoing, too. Equally importantly, there would be another clear public benefit if MPs scrutinised the declared interests of their staff: scrutiny by MPs would improve the quality of the data on the register of interests of MPs’ staff. It’s no use having the register for the sake of it, after all.
  2. Here is an actual example of a high-profile backbencher avoiding accountability because of the flawed process for producing the register of interests of MPs’ staff. While the MP hasn’t abused the current rules, I shall explain why I think the situation is unsatisfactory. (Note: I’m not a member of any political party.) Steve Baker is the Conservative MP for Wycombe. First elected in 2010, Mr Baker co-chairs Conservatives for Britain, a new anti-EU campaign group, and serves on the Commons Treasury select committee. He is also a member of the executive of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. Clearly, Mr Baker is an influential backbencher.
  3. I first came across the self-described thinktank Commonwealth Exchange (CX) in the latest accounts for a charity linked to campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Politics and Economics Research Trust (registered charity number: 1121849). These show the charity awarded a £10 000 grant to CX in 2014. CX was incorporated 19 March 2013, according to Companies House records (registered company number: 08451866). It is an active company, having filed two sets of accounts there. The thinktank was set up to “promote the trading, educational, and strategic opportunities of the modern Commonwealth”, according to its homepage. Tim Hewish is executive director and co-founder of CX. He defines his business occupation as “civil servant – political” for the public record at Companies House.
  4. Mr Hewish used to work for Mr Baker in parliament. I found Mr Hewish working for the MP on versions of the House of Commons Register Of Interests Of Members’ Secretaries And Research Assistants published after he’d started his company. That is, the register at 17 April 2013, 30 May 2013, 11 July 2013, 18 October 2013, 9 January 2014, 20 February 2014 and 26 June 2014. There may be further relevant versions of the register, but the ones I identify are those I could quickly find in online archives. Mr Hewish had made no disclosures.
  5. On 2 January 2016, I asked Mr Baker in an email why Mr Hewish had failed to disclose both ownership of CX and his executive director role there on the seven versions of the register that I specify. In his 7 January 2016 reply, the MP wrote: “I require my staff to comply scrupulously with the rules: it is their responsibility to do so. Commonwealth Exchange has never been any business or concern of mine. I suggest you take this up with Tim Hewish, who, as you know, no longer works for me.”
  6. Mr Baker’s reply surprised me because at that stage I’d expected MPs would be required to be involved somehow in the process for producing the register of interests of MPs’ staff. According to the MP, he wasn’t in any way accountable for Mr Hewish’s alleged non-disclosure of interests. Here the parliament website fails to help the public: there is no explicit guidance about whose exact responsibility it is for the staff member to make appropriate disclosures on the register. For this reason, I contacted Philippa Wainwright in the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. She’s the Assistant Registrar, responsible for compiling and maintaining the register of interests of MPs’ staff. After discussing my queries with the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests, Heather Wood, Ms Wainwright confirmed that it’s solely the responsibility of the staff member to make appropriate disclosures on the register.
  7. I then wrote again to Mr Baker (13 January 2016) with incontrovertible proof that he was aware at the time that then staff member Mr Hewish was running the company CX (see para 9). I added he would then have been aware too that Mr Hewish had failed to disclose both ownership of CX and his executive director role there on the register. It was a failure on the MP’s part, I suggested, that he hadn’t ensured his employee make appropriate disclosures at the time – a failure of oversight.
  8. Mr Baker’s next-day reply was short and to the point: “It remains Tim Hewish’s responsibility to make a correct declaration.”
  9. The incontrovertible proof? A tweet from the MP (@SteveBakerHW) 1 October 2013: “Tim Hewish promoting @the_CX”, with a photo of Mr Hewish speaking about CX at an event Mr Baker didn’t identify (screen shot in Figure 1). @the_CX is the official Twitter account of CX. I noted both the date of his tweet and from where it was sent – Manchester. The 2013 Conservative party conference took place 29 September-2 October in Manchester. “Was Mr Hewish speaking at a conference event?”, I asked but to no avail. I continued: “If so, perhaps it was at the 2013 Freedom Zone? Mr Hewish is standing in front of a pop-up banner bearing both the name and logo of the Freedom Association. The Freedom Association held its customary Freedom Zone at conference that year.” Again, no comment from Mr Baker.

    Figure 1. Steve Baker tweet 1 October 2013

    Figure 1. Steve Baker tweet 1 October 2013

  10. What is the official reason(s) for not requiring MPs to also sign their staff member’s registration form? In the absence of a publicly accessible answer, I went back to the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Ms Wood told me in an email: “MPs have never been required to sign off register entries for their staff. The obvious reason for this is that an MP would not necessarily know whether the interests listed by his or her staff were complete and accurate. In some cases only the staff member would know if they had listed all their outside work and all the gifts and benefits which they had received which required registration.” She added: “Staff employed by Parliament (as opposed to those employed by MPs) also have to disclose interests on occasion. Their statements do not have to be signed off by their manager. Indeed I am not aware of employees whose declarations have to be signed off by their employer.”
  11. But as a general principle, MPs are surely responsible for their staff and the actions of their staff. The free pass I describe to MPs to avoid accountability is evidently inconsistent with that principle. Equally importantly, there would be another clear public benefit if MPs scrutinised the declared interests of their staff: scrutiny by MPs would improve the quality of the data on the register of interests of MPs’ staff. It’s no use having the register for the sake of it, after all.
  12. I reiterate: I’m not accusing Mr Baker of any wrongdoing in relation to the register of interests of MPs’ staff. He has complied with the current rules, to my knowledge. But I am suggesting the rules need to be toughened up to help maintain trust and confidence in MPs and their staff. MPs’ credibility is at stake. Unaccountable in any way on disclosure of staff members’ interests, MPs can look the other way – if they should want to. The potential for abuse is obvious when MPs can always legitimately say: “nothing to do with me, guv”. This loophole needs to be closed.
  13. ADDENDUM: On 2 February 2016, I invited Mr Hewish at CX in an email to comment on his alleged non-disclosure of interests when working for Mr Baker in parliament. Mr Baker had referred me to him on the matter, I explained. He replied 9 February 2016 after a same-day reminder. Mr Hewish wrote that he’s “approached the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for guidance on this issue”. But he added: “At the time I was not aware that a declaration, if any, was required nor was it conveyed to me at any point by my line manager.” That “line manager”, of course, was Mr Baker.
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