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Sensemaker: Parliamentary sleaze

Sensemaker: Parliamentary sleaze

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nicaragua’s autocratic president, Daniel Ortega, won a fourth consecutive presidential term in an election described by the US as a “pantomime”.
  • Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, launched an inquiry into electrician David Fuller’s sexual abuse of at least 100 bodies in two hospital morgues over 12 years.
  • A French court awarded a couple more than €100,000 in compensation for “turbine syndrome”, a range of health problems caused by living near wind turbines.

Parliamentary sleaze

As the House of Commons debated MPs’ standards of behaviour, Boris Johnson kept a “longstanding” diary commitment: a maskless visit to a hospital 300 miles away, near Hadrian’s Wall. The prime minister told journalists he had nothing more to say on his failed attempt to overhaul parliamentary rules against lobbying and save his disgraced former MP Owen Paterson from a suspension for breaching those same rules. Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson was “running scared”. 

Even Conservative backbenchers were angry. The party’s former chief whip, Mark Harper, who voted against the government last week, told the Commons that “if the team captain gets their side – from backbenchers to senior ministers – into difficulty when they get something wrong, they should apologise”. Instead, the sort-of apology was left to cabinet office minister Steve Barclay who told MPs that the government had made a “mistake” but that he didn’t think MPs should be prevented from having second jobs, which add richness to the House. But that was yesterday. 

Today, the Daily Mail broke a story that may push the government into a different position:

– Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, now a Tory backbencher, voted in the Commons by proxy earlier this year because he was in the British Virgin Islands working for international law firm Withers. He is paid £400,000 a year by the firm for up to 41 hours per month.

– He has been representing the secretive tax haven’s government as it faces a Foreign Office inquiry into corruption, including accusations of serious criminal wrongdoing by BVI officials.

– In May last year, when Cox is thought to have been in the BVI, he was paid £157,000 for 140 hours. In other words, he worked for nearly seven hours each working day for that month. All the while, he was meant to be representing his constituents in Torridge and West Devon, some 3,950 miles away – a job for which the public pays him £82,000 a year.

The Cox case is interesting because, unlike Paterson’s case, it doesn’t appear to be one of paid advocacy. Paterson was using parliamentary resources and time to lobby on behalf of his private sector employers. Cox just isn’t doing the job the public pays him for.

The two issues have now been conflated in an apparent attempt to stave off regulating either. As Barclay implied in parliament yesterday, it’s difficult to object to MPs having second jobs. Some are doctors and others work for charities. The problem is when MPs spend more time doing their second jobs, like Cox. For this, there can be straightforward time limits.

On paid advocacy, the rules – that MPs can’t use their position to benefit their private sector clients – are clear and Paterson had clearly broken them. The parliamentary commissioner for standards’ investigation worked, the hearings worked and, despite Paterson’s claims that he was given no space to defend himself, the process was fair and open. The problem is enforcement. MPs including Paterson got to vote on whether to implement the commissioner’s recommended punishment. Paterson was both accused party and juror. That’s what needs to change.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Belarus weaponises migrants
The Polish government called an emergency meeting and sent 12,000 troops to its border with Belarus as some 4,000 migrants tried to enter the country. Warsaw claims the migrants, mainly from the Middle East and Asia, were pushed to the border by Belarus in retaliation for EU sanctions on the Belarusian regime. Poland is trying to push the migrants back and is warning of an “armed” escalation, but Belarus is refusing to let them return. Stranded outside in sub-zero temperatures, several migrants have already died of hypothermia. It’s the weaponisation of human desperation. And it has diverted attention from the ongoing repression of democratic activists in Belarus – which triggered the latest round of sanctions in the first place.

New things technology, science, engineering

Model ships
Maxar, an American space technology company, captured satellite images of full-scale models of US Navy warships in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, northwest China. One model was of an aircraft carrier and another two were destroyers. The first was placed on railway tracks running through the desert. USNI News, which reported the images, said the models appeared to be targets built by China’s military, which has been testing anti-ship ballistic missiles for years. China’s naval expansion is meant as a signal to the whole Pacific rim, but the models suggest Beijing is more than mildly obsessed with the US Navy specifically, which has been doing drills with Japanese forces in the South China Sea.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Famine rising
The UN’s World Food Programme said the number of people in near-famine conditions rose to 45 million, up from 42 million earlier this year. Its definition is based on Phase 4 in the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which ranges from 1 (minimal food insecurity) to 5 (catastrophe/famine). Afghanistan, which is experiencing a drought and heading into a severe winter, accounts for most of the increase. The share of its population facing near-famine conditions went from three million earlier this year to 8.7 million now. “Fuel costs are up, food prices are soaring, fertiliser is more expensive,” WFP’s executive director David Beasley said during a visit to the country. “And all of this feeds into new crises like the one unfolding now in Afghanistan, as well as long-standing emergencies like Yemen and Syria.”

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Plastic pandemic
More than eight million tons of Covid pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, according to an article in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Most (87.4 per cent) is from medical waste produced by hospitals. Much less (7.6 per cent) is from personal protective equipment. More than 25,000 tons of the waste has entered the ocean. “This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment,” said study authors Yiming Peng and Peipei Wu from Nanjing University, “and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments.”

For the latest from Cop26, just opt in to our daily Net Zero Sensemaker.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Halo effect
A letter from Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyer was made public, revealing possible defences against criminal charges that she recruited, groomed, and trafficked underage girls for Jeffrey Epstein to abuse from 1994 to 2004. One line of defence is to claim the girls’ memories may be faulty. Another is that Maxwell’s attempt to win their trust did not necessarily reflect an intent for them to be abused. More ambitiously, the defence may argue that Epstein’s “great power and wealth” radiated a “halo effect” that drew people who served his needs. The trial is set to start on 29 November and is estimated to last six weeks. One outcome is easy to predict. Unlike Epstein’s victims, Maxwell will get the best justice money can buy.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Edited and produced by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs Peter Summers/Pool/AFP, Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA/AFP, Hector Retamal/AFP, Adriana Adie/NurPhoto via Getty Images