Life & Culture

Meet Daniel Greenberg: The orthodox Jew policing Parliament

If an MP misbehaves, there’s a new man to call. Meet Daniel Greenberg, Westminster sleaze-buster


Daniel Greenberg CB, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, isn’t necessarily hoping to be less well known than his predecessor, who was constantly in the press for arbitrating various scandals and judging the bad behaviour of MPs.

But he is hoping that by the end of his five-year term, he’ll be recognised more for “educating and facilitating the good than investigating and punishing the bad”.

The “bad” is why Parliament’s so-called sleaze watchdog was created in 1995, in the wake of Cash for Questions. Greenberg stepped into Kathryn Stone’s shoes in January. Stone’s tenure included the lobbying investigation that led to Owen Paterson’s downfall, plus the probe into Labour’s Keith Vaz over allegations involving drugs and sex workers.

Greenberg’s remit extends from advising members on registering interests to investigating alleged code of conduct breaches.

He also oversees investigations into complaints made against MPs under the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. “There’s a provision that requires members to avoid doing things that seriously damage the reputation of the House,” explains Greenberg.

The cases that arrive on his desk can be anything from paid lobbying to failure to inadvertent administrative errors.

There are currently two investigations in the public domain; one into former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier, who spoke in Parliament while awaiting a Covid test, then travelled on public transport while knowingly positive.

The other, a potential flashpoint for Rishi Sunak, is looking at Chris Pincher’s behaviour. Pincher, notoriously, was accused of drunken groping; the ensuing scandal saw Boris Johnson’s support collapse and prompted his resignation.

Speaking with lawyerly restraint, Greenberg is tight-lipped on these cases, but notes there’s a range of other activity “that isn’t an investigation but might involve me offering words of advice to a member and having a conversation… there’s a fair amount beneath the surface”.

An Orthodox Jew whose written work includes a novel called A Tale of Two Rabbis – Faith and Fraud about housing benefit fraud in a strictly Orthodox community, and a non-fiction book titled What if God’s A Christian?, Greenberg has spent most of his career in public service.

This has included acting as parliamentary counsel, drafting legislation, along with a brief consultancy stint at Berwin Leighton Paisner.

When this latest post was becoming vacant, he decided “it would be a constructive way to end my involvement in Parliament”.

His powers vary; for more minor breaches, he can demand an apology. Beyond that, he makes referrals to Chris Bryant’s Committee on Standards, which can recommend sanctions such as suspension, for MPs to then vote on (as happened with Paterson).

Greenberg had no trepidation taking on the role; an article he wrote for the JC during Covid, condemning Charedim for breaching lockdown restrictions and calling for the wider community to “disown them”, makes clear he is not easily cowed in his desire for rules to be followed.

But he would have expected a bulging in-tray. Recent years have seen their share of political scandals, from Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs to allegations of bullying against Dominic Raab, or Matt Hancock’s extracurricular antics. Have things got worse? Are we seeing similar levels of sleaze to the tail end of the John Major period?

“I don’t think anybody can measure. It’s so difficult to know what was going on and not known about in previous decades,” says Greenberg.

“What is clearly the case is that trust in politicians as a class is presently dangerously low.” Such distrust, he stresses, is largely undeserved. “The vast majority… are strongly committed to very high standards in public life.”

He worries about this decline in trust. “It’s dangerous because if you get to a stage where large numbers of people, particularly younger people, write off politicians, that leads to disengagement with political structures,” he says.

“Ultimately, the rule of law operates by consent and consent requires at least occasional participation. It certainly requires general consensus that the system is deserving of support.” For that, he says, “a level of trust is required”.

Does that mean we need better safeguards to make MPs less prone to undermining standards? Greenberg believes that “broadly” the system is working, with the House “prepared to act decisively and strongly when members breach the code”.

“It has shown it is prepared to send a very strong message to the public and to Members that failure to comply with the code will not be tolerated. The most important safeguard is clear action when the code is broken.”

Primarily, he thinks it’s about ensuring the code is well understood, by educating MPs and the public on what appropriate conduct in public life is.

That’s not to say the system is unimprovable; Stone called it “bonkers” that she had no remit to investigate ministerial breaches in the wake of the Downing Street renovation scandal. Like her, Greenberg doesn’t oversee ministerial standards, although as MPs, ministers are required to uphold the code — “so I can investigate a minister in relation to their capacity as a Member”.

He admits to wanting “some relatively modest structural changes”, including having just one system covering registering ministerial and MP interests. Having two systems, he says, causes confusion or even suspicion.

Equally, he thinks the much-debated question of whether MPs should have second jobs “needs to be looked at”, if only because it’s clearly something that occupies a lot of public attention.

“If it’s something that troubles the public, then to ensure trust and confidence, it is something the House needs to look at.”

He believes there is a balance to be struck between the advantages gained from MPs with “up-to-date experience of a wide range of businesses, professions and occupations” and the job they are primarily there to do.

Crucially, he says, MPs must be able to give proper attention to their constituents. “They need time and mental energy to do that.”

Labour’s proposal is to ban second jobs altogether, which could prevent doctors from contributing their skills.

Greenberg is not overly concerned if he does have to implement such a ban, saying that what’s key on this issue is making sure MPs “don’t damage the reputation of politicians as a class”. MPs showing extreme inattention to parliamentary affairs “could be in breach of the code, because it could damage the reputation of the House”.

Isn’t there a smell test, though? Taking a second job with a company proffering its services to government, say, is clearly fishy?

“I’m not sure I would agree that it divides in that way,” he says, suggesting it is more complicated than it being obvious that “this profession is in and this profession is out”.

“The fact an occupation is praiseworthy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s compatible with being an MP,” he says.

“If a nurse or a doctor found the demands of their job made it impossible for them to spend enough time on their constituents, that wouldn’t mean that they’re not doing something socially useful — they are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s compatible with being a member.

"Equally that somebody’s working in a business doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily not compatible.”

In an effort to improve compliance, Greenberg’s office recently published template wording on lobbying for employment contracts MPs might be signing. This, he says, “is designed to provide clarity for members and employers as to the kind of lobbying activity that Members cannot do compatibly with their duties as an MP”.

Arguably, much comes down to the types of people standing to be MPs in the first place. Whether selection processes should be tightened Greenberg doesn’t say, but he thinks it would be “highly beneficial” to offer candidates training in the standards of public life, so that on election they would have a full picture of the code they would be adhering to.

His tenure will certainly cover at least one general election, quite possibly resulting in the arrival of hundreds of fresh-faced MPs. That, he says, will offer “an opportunity to relaunch certain aspects of the code and ensure that there is general understanding among the new Members”.

He is a member himself of not one but two communities in Hendon (Magen Avot and Ner Yisrael). Greenberg and his wife also belong to a shul in Beit Shemesh.

His faith doesn’t shape how he approaches his role, he says, but the ethical underpinning of religious observance and the ethical underpinnings of public office should be the same.

“The rabbis say integrity and decency are a necessary prerequisite for religious observance, and they are also a necessary prerequisite for proper behaviour in public life,” he says. “I don’t think my religion directly affects my public service and I don’t think my public service directly affects my religion, but I do think both should be reflections of fundamental underlying ethical concepts.”

I’ve worked in proximity to Westminster and Whitehall for years, and while there are plenty of Jews in public life, it remains rare to encounter someone wearing a kippah, let alone a kippah and tzitzit. Is it a source of pride for Greenberg to be a Jew in such a prominent role, upholding standards?

“I take pleasure in being part of a rich and diverse and public sector in the UK,” he says. “I’m not proud of myself for being a Jew in public service. I am certainly proud of public service for accepting Jews and anybody else. We operate in a very tolerant and diverse environment.”

A sign of success in his efforts to communicate the code and improve behaviour will be a light workload.

His hope is that every Member “should come into Parliament saying my desire is not just to avoid breaking the code, my desire is to be an ambassador for it — to be an observable leader in public life, who stands for the implementation of integrity and accountability.”

After all, he says, “it’s not a code to avoid breaking. It’s a set of principles to be proud of.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive