In the aftermath of the scandal surrounding now ex-MP Owen Paterson and his lobbying practices, there is fertile ground for a reevaluation of current lobbying rules, and perhaps more importantly, a thorough inspection of the conflicts of interests that are currently at the heart of government. There is no better example of this than the overrepresentation of landlords and their interests in Westminster.

Vested interests

Currently, 115 out of the 650 MPs (18%) in Westminster, and a quarter of all Tory MPs are private landlords. These numbers only get higher as you go up the ranks. Among MPs appointed as ministers or whips, 27 per cent are private landlords — including seven of the 25 MPs who attend Cabinet.

With so many MPs having such a personal, financially vested interest in a variety of housing-related policies — with 90 Tory MPs supplementing their income by at least £10,000 per year through rentals — it becomes clear why the interests of renters, and of the public at large, rarely get the full consideration they deserve.

On top of this, a report by Transparency International found that a whopping 80 per cent of all donations to the Conservative Party between January 2010 and March 2020 came from property tycoons. The report went on to say that the party’s worrying ‘dependence’ on money from the property sector created a risk of ‘aggregative corruption’.

Last month a report stated that 16 MPs (14 Tory and 2 Labour) claimed a total of £1.3m in rent in expenses, including four government ministers, whilst earning income through renting other properties they own.

The report maintains that there is no definitive proof, ‘of any direct quid pro quo’ with regards to the lobbying of property tycoons and landlord MPs, in terms of housing policy. Nevertheless, it does conclude that MPs and housing policy are very likely to be ‘unduly influenced’ by these donors and the self-interest of certain MPs.

We need only look at the House of Commons vote in 2016 on an amendment to the Housing and Planning Act, which would have sought to ensure all private landlords made their homes ‘fit for human habitation’. This amendment was voted down, with the majority of all 72 landlord MPs helping to make sure it was not passed.

Allowing landlords to run the country

Most people would not let a group of landlords dictate the housing laws of our country. Why then do we accept this situation when those landlords also happen to be MPs? How are renters and first-time buyers supposed to get a fair deal when those who set the laws have such a vested interest in the outcome?

According to data from the National Housing Federation, renters in the UK are paying the highest prices in Europe, with tenants spending on average 39.1 per cent of their income on rent compared to the European average of 28 per cent. There are several reasons for this, but the overrepresentation of the interests of landlords in Westminster is certainly a fundamental part of the problem.

Since the Owen Paterson scandal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed a ban on second jobs for MPs (with some exceptions). Arguably, this is a purely political move to reduce the backlash that Johnson and his party are currently facing over his botched handling of the issue. However, if Johnson´s amendment passes it will certainly be a move in the right direction when it comes to personal interests trumping public interest in Parliament. 

Having said this, the problem has not been resolved. As long as MPs are able to rent out multiple properties, it leaves them worryingly susceptible to lobbying in their own financial interests and those of other landlords.

This becomes all the more serious when we consider how central and political the concept of housing is. On a basic human level, a house is a place of security, shelter and stability. But it runs deeper than this.

Rental rates and the availability of homes — which depend on housing laws and policies implemented by the government — determine such things as one’s ability to live in proximity to a good school, or to other resources which play an important role in one’s development.

Then there’s the quality of your housing. This can have a significant impact on one’s health. Damp, mouldy, crumbling and poorly insulated homes can cause all manner of problems, such as worsening asthma in sufferers.

When you have a government full of landlords that vote down progressive amendments that aim to improve quality of life, then you arguably have a serious societal problem.

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