OPINION6 July 2009

Parliament shoots itself in the foot

News Opinion

UK politicians are to introduce tough new rules on disclosure in a bid to quell public anger over the expenses scandal. The Parliamentary Standards Bill will require MPs to declare all their outside interests – including any incentives they receive for taking surveys. But this puts their participation in research at risk, argues ComRes CEO Andrew Hawkins.

The Parliamentary Standards Bill was introduced as a result of a combination of media frenzy, public anger and political fear. To be sure, MPs’ expenses had to be reformed in the wake of the expenses scandal. But in attempting to regulate MPs’ wider earnings, the scope of this Bill goes much further.

One of the activities caught in this drift-net of a law is MPs’ being paid for taking part in market research. This will create several problems.

First, it increases the risk of a sleaze scandal. There is an established demand for understanding the views of MPs, whether to measure corporate reputation or to help plan a campaign. The only way to get MPs to take part in such surveys is to make a payment available – either to them directly or to a third party such as a charity or local party association of the MPs’ choice. All such payments, even to charity, are disclosable under the new rules.

The money changing hands is pretty modest and akin to the levels paid to some focus group participants. It is also similar to the appearance fees typically paid by the BBC and other media for political interviews.

MPs will be unlikely to shun media engagements as a result of this Bill, but the burdensome bureaucracy it places on them may deter them from taking part in surveys. They may simply decide a survey is not worth doing if they have to record how long they spend completing it, who it was for and how much they received for doing so.

If MPs are deterred from taking part in research, it will place an even higher premium on access to MPs’ opinions. A similar situation encouraged some lobbyists in the 1980s and ’90s to make exaggerated claims about their privileged relationship with parliamentarians. The resulting scandal led directly to the creation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The second concern raised by this Bill is that it becomes impossible to preserve the same standards of anonymity in research. Some of ComRes’s clients have their annual bonuses predicated on the tracking data we supply. It is important that those clients do not know the identities of respondents.

The answer to this problem is simple. The House of Lords has a disclosure regime which is pragmatic and effective, yet is strict in requiring all financial interests to be declared. There is an exemption whereby Peers earn occasional income from “speeches, lecturing, broadcasting and journalism”. When ComRes began surveying Peers we received confirmation from the Registrar of Lords’ Interests that occasional income from market research fell within this exemption and would not therefore be registrable.

So there is a perfectly good template for the House of Commons to follow that avoids the mistake of taking us back to the 1990s.

The public was rightly angry at the extent to which MPs were abusing the expenses system and Parliament is correctly seeking to address that anger. But in failing to stop and fully think through the consequences of this law, the House of Commons risks sowing the seeds of the next parliamentary scandal.