Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor last May.
Should MPs have outside interests? Labour’s position appears to be that it’s okay unless those interests happen to be business-related.
This is a particularly tawdry debate, when the last Labour Prime Minister has reportedly earned £1 million in the last year on top of his MP’s salary, and his predecessor has accumulated millions of pounds (and counting) capitalising on his former position.
The row has been re-energised in the wake of two heavyweight former foreign secretaries making fools of themselves in a ‘cash for access’ media sting, yet virtually all the criticism is directed at the Conservative, whilst Labour’s Honourable Member is being allowed to keep a low profile. I suppose we’ll have to wait for Chilcot to see just how honourable he is. When so many other reports are leaked opportunistically, I can only hope that this one gets to see the light of day before May 7th.
In the meantime, we should remember that MPs are vulnerable to losing their jobs, so it’s hardly surprising that they want to sustain their professional knowledge and contacts. Plus, those who have worked beyond the Westminster village bring invaluable insight into of the daily pressures which the rest of the population face. It also makes them aware that money doesn’t grow on trees; those multi-billion pound budgets are only possible because of the hard work of ‘ordinary people’, and the private businesses which employ them.
If they are banned from having those outside interests, how will this impact at council level? Frankly, I suspect that most local authorities could do with more people who have had a proper job in the real world, rather than just those who have careers in one or other part of the public sector or in IT.
Officers who advise councillors have little or no external experience, having spent their entire careers in public service, with jobs usually only advertised within the public sector network.
So, we need people with real vision, who understand how to make money go further, who are creative and sensitive, independent-minded, with a wide range of interests beyond their city boundaries; people who have met those outside politics, visited other cities at home and abroad, who are ambitious for their communities. All too often, councillors – and MPs – are content with the status quo, because it suits their own non-aspirational agenda. To me, that is worse than someone earning extra monies by advising a business.
All politicians, local or national, have to comply with their register of interests and, if speaking on a relevant topic, declare an interest. This should not prohibit them from highlighting issues which could improve legislation or raise concerns which would not otherwise be addressed because colleagues and officers are ignorant of the potential issues.
Whilst I believe that councillors are actually held to a higher ethical standard than our national politicians, with a more rigorous oversight of external interests, some laxity does appear to be creeping in, especially on planning matters. Private discussions with developers were always prohibited unless in the company of officers. When I sat on a planning committee, I couldn’t even attend a developer’s exhibition without a ‘keeper’. However, such rules evidently no longer apply – or if they do, they are not being observed.
It is, of course, up to the individual councillor to declare what they may regard as an ‘interest’, and take the consequences if they don’t and are discovered to have breached any rules.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to hold them to account. It is a question of perception – and what the electorate would think if they see a local council cabinet member supping with someone who is planning, for example, a new development. It is, frankly, unethical.
But it happens, especially when administrations with overwhelming political majorities ride roughshod over dissent, and makes me wonder if opposition councillors in these circumstances have much of a role any more. Recent examples (such as Rotherham) where a ruling party apparently permitted bad practices to thrive without question are evidence that a certain arrogance encourages a belief in invulnerability.
Consequently, I suggest that the rules on proportionality should be changed in these situations, allowing opposition parties a greater say on committees – enabling local residents to be properly represented. In particular, scrutiny committees – which are supposed to challenge a council’s methodology and policies – should not be dominated by the ruling elite.
The solution? Appoint an independent external chairman, and encourage members of the public to attend and speak. There should be no false arguments about secrecy, and all relevant papers should be made publicly available; if administrations have nothing to hide, they should welcome such openness – which would enhance public confidence.