Conflicts of interests

The UK is facing a General Election on 12 December. At this election we will choose persons to represent the people as Members of Parliament in the British House of Commons. We choose such persons in the belief that they will devote their time and energies to representing us at Westminster. After all, our system of government in the UK is that of a parliamentary democracy.
Moreover, those elected to this national office will be expected to serve their constituencies in a full-time capacity. To this end their salary (over twice the national average), benefits and pensions are generous. We fondly believe our MPs are dedicated to the interests of their constituents and that these interests, or at least what they think are those of the country, always come first. However, is this really the case? Do tenured members of parliament work exclusively on behalf of their constituents?
We sometimes read stories in our daily newspapers of politicians who abuse their office in order to enhance their financial status, for example, by mis-stating their expenses. So too, during the debates over Brexit we have learned of allegations of politicians being backed by what has been described as ‘dark money’. However, little detail of such machinations has been forthcoming and certainly do not seem to have significantly featured in the debates.
The respected weekend newspaper the Observer recently published an article about a Scottish politician who decided to enlarge her income. The politician was of the view that her job of representing the citizens of her constituency in the east of Scotland would have left her time to also represent a global Public Relations firm. Her income from this latter source would have added substantially to her remuneration as an MP.
The politician in question is regarded as ‘an astute and canny politician’ who, after becoming an MP in 2011, quickly rose to prominence in her party and displayed impressive leadership qualities. Not surprisingly, therefore, this news attracted adverse publicity with the result that the MP subsequently opted to drop the arrangement.
The article did not impute any wrongdoing on the part of the politicians, nor did she try to conceal her consideration of a lucrative second income. The issue raised by the newspaper article isn’t so much that she briefly considered ‘the boost that an additional income would bring to her remuneration as an MP and its effect on her lifestyle, but how this would be understood by voters.’
It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand why it is that private firms are attracted to popular politicians. It is not only their personal characteristics but also the access they provide to corridors of power and decision-making. It would be expected that the politicians would be effective at lobbying for the interests they are paid to represent. Whilst constituents may be able to understand and even appreciate the need for a politician to earn more money, they may also have ‘a problem with the potential for a conflict of interests: theirs and the politician’s new employer’.
There were times in my own professional experience when I undertook two jobs at the same time. The primary reason for this was that no single job specification was sufficiently full to demand a full-time salary. On more than one occasion a primary first job appointment was linked with or dependent upon a second appointment. Sometimes this meant that I took on two appointments which, together, required more time than a single appointment permitted. In this case the job load included weekend work, with only one non-working day per week. In this way I acquired an appropriate single salary.
However, on any occasion when I undertook two appointments, the employers were aware of and in definite agreement with this arrangement. It was a way of serving two conjoint tasks without the need for an employer to provide a single full-time salary for either appointment. The foregoing arrangement generally met with the approval of those who were appointing and those being served by the appointments. Indeed, both parties were approving of opportunities to further the work of either, or both, of these appointments with further academic study and, therefore, the dual appointments could be considered as honest and value for money.
It seems axiomatic, therefore, that most voters would surely consider that all politicians, not only the Scottish MP earlier mentioned, should regard their job as a people’s representative in national government as a sole occupation. They are public servants for the duration of their period of office in parliament and their servanthood should be exclusive.
It is to be acknowledged that ‘the work of an MP can be at the mercy of the public’s capriciousness every few years and that there may be scant long-term security in the job’, but this is offset by an MP’s remuneration package and, as the newspaper article adds, ‘the opportunity to connect with potential future employers.’ An MP’s remuneration should preclude second jobs as, for instance lobbyists for private enterprises, newspaper columnists, professional consultations as medical or law practitioners, or holding official positions in industrial occupations.
The Observer article that carried the story of the Scottish MP seeking employment on top of but outside of her parliamentary duties, concludes by asserting that ‘she is only one of many among our elected representatives across the whole spectrum of party politics who doesn’t seem to have grasped why attempts to maximise their parliamentary experience are regarded dimly by the public’. This is so because the public regards ‘the task of making laws and representing them in the highest chamber in the land as a privilege that requires their exclusive devotion.’
As the 2019 General Election approaches it would do well for politicians who will be elected to the House of Commons, as well as those British citizens who elect them to office, to remembers this. Those elected to Westminster should be happy ‘to forfeit outside financial interests in exchange for an MP’s remuneration package and not expect to be hailed as heroes for their sacrifice.’
With further reference to the Observer newspaper, 38 Degrees, the British not-for-profit political-activism organisation (to which this writer subscribes and has commented on in this blog), has recently informed the movement’s supporters that:
On Friday, we broke the story that the metropolitan police have passed a file of criminal evidence against Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign to the Crown Prosecution Service.
On Sunday, the Observer newspaper reported that Boris Johnson knew about this illegal overspend and failed to tell the authorities. But here’s the thing. Even if Vote Leave is charged and found guilty, that doesn’t mean that the people who ran and fronted the campaign will face any kind of sanction.
More than three years after Vote Leave broke electoral law, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in Downing Street. And Cummings is now in charge of another massive political campaign – this time to get Johnson elected to run our country.
Whichever political party you support, and however you feel about Brexit, it can’t be right that those who break the laws of our democracy are never held accountable. Right now, you can be charged more for touting tickets at a football match that for breaking electoral law.
A conflict of interests is ‘a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another.’ (Wikipedia). In public politics, as well as in private affairs, conflicts of interests have the potential to be divisive, demeaning and destructive. They should be avoided.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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