Lib Dem politician Tom Brake told The Big Issue that the register of members’ interests is “frankly impenetrable” and “designed to obstruct transparency and accountability rather than to facilitate it”.
The Daily Mail revealed on Wednesday that Tory MP Geoffrey Cox was paid more than £150,000 to advise the government of British Virgin Islands against his own government. When asked about it during a media round, Dominic Raab argued the public has the chance to hold MPs to account over their outside interests at the ballot box.
“It’s for the voters in any individual constituency to look at the record of their MP and decide whether they’ve got the right priorities,” Raab told Radio 4’s Today programme.
But Brake, who was a Lib Dem MP from 1997 to 2019 and is now director of campaign group Unlock Democracy, said the public “are going to need a degree in data analysis to be able to access that information”.
Multiple campaign groups told The Big Issue that the system needs to be turned into a database and made searchable, so the public can better understand the outside work done by their representatives.
The usually obscure issue of parliamentary standards has dominated the news since an investigation found former cabinet minister Owen Paterson had “breached the rule prohibiting paid advocacy” through his work for two companies.
While the country was in lockdown, Cox – a former attorney general – was representing the government of the British Virgin Islands, and voted in parliamentary votes over video calls. He was paid over £150,000 for the work – and has earned more than £1million through outside work in the past year.
Cox didn’t break any rules and did declare the income. But the revelations have prompted fierce debate about whether MPs should have second jobs, as well as how the public should be informed about them.
The register is not just a way to see how much Boris Johnson makes from book royalties (his most recent payment was £1,396.93), or to see which members are bagging free tickets to the cricket, but to determine which MPs are taking on outside interests. Gifts, hospitality, and lucrative consultancy work all appear on the register, along with the number of hours worked.
MPs must update their entries within one month of a change to their interests.
There is also no uniform way of formatting entries. For example, here is Geoffrey Cox’s most recent update, written in long, first-person sentences.
And this is education secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s overall entry, a simple list which reveals little about the specifics of his property empire and interests.
Daniel Beizsley, a researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, said the system is not fit for purpose. “The register of MPs’ financial interests feels like a dusty relic of a bygone analogue age,” he told The Big Issue.
“As successive governments have made strides toward effective data transparency in other areas, it remains a mystery why the Register keeps on getting left behind.”
One place the public can access more information on MPs’ second jobs is TheyWorkForYou, the website also known for collecting MPs’ voting records. In particular, the website shows how each member’s interests have changed over time – key information not available through the register itself.
But the people behind the site say the way parliament supplies the information makes things difficult.
“We’d love to make it more accessible still – for example so that you could easily see all the MPs who receive funds from one specific source, or so that you could compare two MPs’ records side by side – but the data isn’t really robust enough for us to do this: it’d require quite complex and sustained work that we don’t currently have resource for,” Myf Nixon, communications manager for mySociety, the organisation behind TheyWorkForYou, told The Big Issue.
“The data still isn’t structured and there’s no universal data standard for this sort of information.
“MPs’ financial interests are a crucial part of what citizens need to be able to access to understand a fully rounded picture of their representatives’ activities,” Nixon said. “We think it’s only right that those records should be freely and easily available to every citizen.”
Both Brake and Beizsley called for the register to be updated into a database, with Brake arguing that this would save MPs and departments time and money.
“It should be possible to input an MP’s name and produce a figure for how much they’ve earned for outside interests over the last five years,” Brake told The Big Issue.
“It should be possible to do searches on companies that are paying members of parliament and see how much an individual company is paying a number of members of parliament to advise them.”