MPs who break House of Commons rules must be “punished”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, as he tried to end a dispute over standards at Westminster.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Mr Johnson said that if MPs were to continue taking second jobs it was essential that they abided by the regulations.
“The most important thing is that those who break the rules must be investigated and should be punished,” he said.
Former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox said he did not believe he had breached rules that ban MPs from using their parliamentary offices for outside business.
Labour has referred Mr Cox to the Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, after video emerged of him apparently taking part in legal proceedings in the British Virgin Islands remotely from his office in Westminster.
Mr Johnson, who has seen the Tories’ poll ratings fall after the standards dispute erupted last week, said he was not going to comment on individual cases, insisting “the UK is not remotely a corrupt country”.
But he said that while in the past MPs taking on second jobs such as doctors, lawyers or soldiers had strengthened democracy, it was essential that they put their constituents first.
“If that system is going to continue today, then it is crucial that MPs follow the rules,” Mr Johnson said.
“And the rules say two crucial things: you must put your job as an MP first and you must devote yourself primarily and above all to your constituents and the people who send you to Westminster, to Parliament.
“And they also say that you should not use your position as an MP to lobby or otherwise intervene on behalf of any outside commercial interest.
“Those are the rules and they must be enforced, and those who don’t obey them should, of course, face sanctions.”
Mr Johnson again refused to apologise for his handling of the row, which erupted after Tory former cabinet minister Owen Paterson was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of two companies for which he was working as a paid consultant.
Conservative MPs were furious after they were ordered to vote for a review of the system, which could have allowed Mr Paterson to appeal against a recommended six-week suspension, only for ministers to abandon the plan when opposition parties refused to co-operate.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson’s lack of contrition showed he did not care about the “corruption” engulfing his party and his government.
“Instead of taking responsibility, the prime minister is taking the mickey out of the British people and won’t clean up his mess,” Ms Rayner said.
“He thinks it’s one rule for him and another rule for everyone else.”
Mr Cox, a QC, earlier defended his decision to represent the British Virgin Islands in an inquiry into corruption in the Caribbean territory, which was ordered by the Foreign Office.
The practising barrister, who reportedly stands to earn more than £1 million ($1.34m) this year for his legal advice on top of his £81,900 MP salary, said he would co-operate with any investigation into his conduct.
“As for the allegation that he breached the parliamentary code of conduct on one occasion, on September 14 2021, by being in his office while participating in an online hearing in the public inquiry and voting in the House of Commons, he understands that the matter has been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner and he will fully co-operate with her investigation," Mr Cox's office said.
“He does not believe that he breached the rules but will of course accept the judgment of the Parliamentary Commissioner or of the committee on the matter.”
Mr Cox said he had been given permission by Chief Whip Mark Spencer to use proxy voting rules brought in during the Covid-19 lockdown to allow him to continue voting in the Commons while working in the Caribbean this year.
A spokesman for the Chief Whip said those granted pandemic proxy votes were expected to “continue performing their primary task of serving their constituents”.
The most recent register of MPs’ interests showed Mr Cox will earn more than £800,000 from Withers, an international law firm appointed by the British Virgin Islands government in January.
The member for Torridge and West Devon also disclosed that from September 28 this year until further notice, he will be paid £400,000 a year by Withers for up to 41 hours of work a month.
Issuing a defence of his work with the islands, Mr Cox said he had obtained the approval of the Office of the Attorney General of England and Wales before accepting the role.
“This is not to ‘defend’ a tax haven or, as has been inaccurately reported, to defend any wrongdoing, but to assist the public inquiry in getting to the truth," he said.