There are few things more excruciating for MPs than public discussions of their pay and outside interests. The Prime Minister’s mishandling of the Owen Paterson affair has put these issues back in the spotlight. And now, the debate has moved on to the subject of second jobs.
When an MP, I took the view that the less I said about these matters the better. MPs get paid considerably more than most of their constituents and arguing for either higher pay or the existing freedom to earn more from outside interests is only going to attract adverse attention. Now, as an ex-MP, it is time to don my tin hat and wade in.
There have always been some who argue that being a constituency MP should be a full-time job. Here I should admit that for most of my time as a member of parliament, the vast majority of my waking hours were taken up not with being a constituency MP but with another role – a minister. Of course, this substantially reduces the time available for purely constituency work but most ministers are still capable of serving their constituents satisfactorily.
In much the same way, there are relatively few complaints about MPs who spend time serving as doctors, dentists or nurses, or even lawyers (although Geoffrey Cox is discovering that this patience is dependant on how many hours are worked). Parliament benefits from having among its membership those with current experience of these fields.
The stronger objection is not so much about other activities intruding on the time that should be spent on constituency and parliamentary duties (so might laziness, and how do you regulate against that?), but on potential or perceived conflicts of interest.
Attitudes to this question will often depend upon how one views the Paterson case. Was this an exceptional case, in both the nature of the lobbying and its frequency, which was found out and appropriately dealt with (despite the efforts of the government) by the parliamentary commissioner and the parliamentary standards committee? Or was it just the tip of the iceberg and symptomatic of widespread behaviour by MPs? In my experience, it was the former.
But even if MPs are not engaged in paid advocacy, runs the counter argument, the very fact that an MP is a servant of a commercial master raises the perception of a conflict of interest. One can see why many people are making that point now and there is some momentum in favour of prohibiting such outside interests. But I think it would be a mistake.
What is the role of an MP? They are scrutinisers of legislation and the executive, champions for their constituency and their constituents, local dignitaries and advocates for their political parties. In addition, under our system, it is from our MPs that a government is formed. It is this task that we should bear in mind when deciding what we should do in respect of MPs outside interests.
Two questions spring to mind. Is the existing talent pool of MPs adequate for our need to supply sufficient numbers of high-quality ministers from the government benches (plus, ideally, a sufficient number of high-quality alternatives from the opposition benches)? Would restricting outside interests make this situation better or worse?
On the first question, looking at the two front benches, not many will say emphatically yes. On the second question, my fear is that tight restrictions on the existence of outside interests will result in talented individuals refusing to become MPs and, if they did become MPs, leaving parliament prematurely.
In recent years, it is already the case that many good MPs who have left government have shortly afterwards left parliament deciding to pursue a different career. If the option of some private sector opportunities is no longer available while retaining a place in the House of Commons, perhaps in the hope of a subsequent return to the front bench, that trend will accelerate.
This is not just about the money that could be addressed by a substantial pay rise (not that this would be an easy option politically). For many ex-ministers, returning to the life of a back-bench MP can be an anti-climax. Some find fulfilment as select committee chairs but for others, engagement with business provides a welcome challenge. The role of non-executive director (NED), for example, requires similar skills to that of a minister – ensuring that an organisation is thinking strategically; asking searching questions of those with operational responsibility; assessing performance. For what it is worth, I found being a NED when an opposition MP an invaluable experience for when I became a minister.
In addition to discouraging potentially good ministers from becoming or remaining parliamentarians, there would be a decrease in the understanding of business within the Commons and an increase in the potency of the Prime Minister’s powers of patronage. The benefit of attaining ministerial office and the cost of losing it would become all the greater. At a time when the country could do with a few ministers being willing to stand up to the Prime Minister from time to time, this would be unwelcome.
The Paterson case has understandably provoked anger and increased suspicion of outside interests. But the unintended consequences of reform could result in a decline in the calibre of our MPs and ministers. The calls for change are loud but things are surely bad enough already.