Should MPs look after their own interests?
Four hundred breaches of the Parliamentary rules involving more than 20 members of Parliament; breaches which the MPs' Code of Conduct describes as "very serious". At stake, according to public figures I have interviewed about it, is the integrity of our democratic system, the reputation of our Parliament and public trust in our elected representatives.
So why, when I raised this with members involved, did I often get the sense that they thought I was making a mountain out of a mole-hill?
One MP responded sharply to my questions: "Surely you have more important things to do. I do."
So, does it really matter that some of our elected representatives fail to declare relevant hospitality from an overseas country? Many of the breaches we cite might be put down to forgetfulness or to oversight.
The MPs had, in most cases, registered their visits. The mistake, it might be argued, was simply a bureaucratic nicety; ticking the little box on the form when tabling a question or signing a motion which would place an "[R]" beside their name on the order paper, alerting people to the registered interest.
As one MP put it when admitting such breaches: "This is a technical error on my part."
Well, the BBC is not claiming to have unearthed mass corruption at the heart of our legislature. But the rules are there for good reason.
Parliament knows what damage could be done if people outside are allowed to think that MPs are getting "trips for questions": nice holidays in lovely places in return for political favours. Or worse, that they are being glad-handed by a foreign power in return for influence within the Palace of Westminster.
The Code of Conduct spells it out:
It also says that:
The point of the regulations is to ensure that a sceptical citizenry can be confident about the integrity of its elected representatives. Transparency is key.
However, my initial attempts at investigating this area were met by resistance from the Parliamentary authorities themselves.
When I first called the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards asking for help in interpreting the rules, I was told that it would not assist me "because you have a particular case in mind".
I explained that I needed to understand the regulations in order to check whether elected members were behaving as they should. This, I argued, was exactly what an independent press was required to do in a democracy.
"I cannot help you," I was told.
"You provide guidance on the rules to MPs," I protested. "Surely you can provide the same guidance to me?" Not that day.
Although the commissioner's office did eventually assist us with the official interpretation of the rules, this initial contact suggests what many people outside Westminster suspect: the system of Parliamentary self-regulation is designed to protect, not just the reputation of the House of Commons, but its members.
Instead of providing transparency, the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members are opaque, confusing and sometimes contradictory. Many members, it emerged during the course of our investigation, are ignorant of what is required of them.
Of the four hundred and more breaches we identified, the vast majority relate to a failure to declare a registered interest. A number of the MPs we contacted said they didn't think a declaration was necessary - and argued it was a matter for them to decide.
A few quoted this line from the rules:
They interpreted this to mean that if they didn't think it was relevant, it wasn't relevant. But the very next line in the regulations explains:
The whole system works only if members take this responsibility seriously. Declaration doesn't imply wrong-doing, but a failure to declare might be interpreted that way. The widespread abuse of the system uncovered by our investigation suggests some members of Parliament don't understand this.
The MP who heads the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, Tony Wright, says:
"Declarations should be the norm. It is quite proper for MPs to go on visits. Some of those visits will be financed by foreign governments. But it is crucial that we know who people are lobbying on behalf of. And if they're lobbying on behalf of governments who have paid for their visits, then clearly we need to know about it."
What really struck me as I conducted the investigation is that the system of scrutiny surrounding the rules clearly does not work.
The only time the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards will look into a potential breach is if someone lodges a formal complaint. Since members from all the major parties are apparently breaking the rules on a regular basis, one can understand why MPs themselves might be reluctant to rock that boat.
Identifying members who have breached the rules on overseas visits was laborious, but not difficult. For the most part, it simply involved comparing the register of interests against Hansard and the rules. Without much effort, we identified hundreds of breaches which the rules regard as "very serious". There will be many more we didn't identify.
For me, the exercise is less about exposing individual MPs' failings as it is about revealing the weaknesses of the scrutiny process.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, puts it like this:
"If, day after day when people are standing up in Parliament, signing early day motions and asking questions of ministers, and they are not declaring an interest they should have declared, then they are undermining the integrity of the system. And if we undermine our democratic system in this country, we will do untold damage for the future."