In some respects, the rules are clear. An MP who earns money outside Parliament which relates in any way to his status as an elected member of the legislature has to make a declaration. In writing. In a register that is regularly updated. There are penalties for those who do not comply. The boastful comments of Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger, as recently revealed in The Independent, might suggest that professional lobbyists, in contrast, live in a world where no rules apply. But that is not so.
The rules may be weak, but they are written into the constitutions of the professional bodies that represent lobbyists. One of these lays down that no lobbyist should gain an unfair commercial advantage over others by holding a lobby pass that allows him to ply his trade by mingling with politicians in Parliament's corridors and cafés. If a lobbyist does hold a parliamentary pass, he is not supposed to put it to professional use.
As The Independent discloses today, however, there is a gaping anomaly. When MPs leave Parliament, they are entitled for the rest of their lives to hold passes giving them free access to the building. This used to be a simple kindness for people retiring after a lifetime of public service, but it has become increasingly common for MPs who leave politics with many years of working life ahead of them to exploit opportunities to earn bigger salaries outside.
Many put their political experience to profitable use by accepting posts with lobbying firms or other organisations that need access to politicians. In this line of business, a parliamentary pass is a highly valuable, marketable asset.
There is no reason why former MPs should not prosper in their life after politics, but it seems extraordinary that they are permitted to hold on to a privilege that goes with their former status in perpetuity. The solution is simple. For as long as they keep their passes, ex-MPs should have to sign a new register of interests, similar to the one that applies to MPs. But there should be a maximum period – two years, perhaps, or the life of the next Parliament – for which the pass would be valid. Thereafter, an ex-MP would be treated like an ordinary member of the voting public.