Wednesday, 1 July 2009

MPs with second jobs

Do we want "part time MPs"? Or should they be giving their whole time to the important business of representing the people who elected them? It's a simple message, and one that seems to be gaining ground. New rules have just come into force that MPs have to disclose all income and time devoted to their second jobs, giving rise to more potential embarrassment. Already, members of the Conservative front bench have divested themselves of outside interests, and it is being suggested that extra-Parliamentary earnings, and jobs, should be banned.And it is said that a blanket ban on MPs having second jobs is being seriously considered by Gordon Brown. Such a ban, after all, would hurt the Tories more than it would hurt Labour - although David Blunkett, to take but one example, would have to forego the £30,000 he gets from Entrust, the American IT security firm keen to profit from ID Cards.

Here's Willie Sullivan expressing a common view:

No one expects MPs to spend every waking moment poring over casework. But when some politicians are holding down what are effectively full-time jobs in between representing their constituents, scrutinising legislation and keeping the government in check, something has to give. And that, it seems, is the voters.

...Constituents will continue playing second fiddle until we see a voting system that obliges politicians to focus on what's really important – the interests of their voters. And these interests are best served by representatives busy in their surgeries, in the committees and on the back benches, not in the Inns of Court, the broadsheets or the boardroom.

There are basically two arguments that can be made against the principle of MPs having second - or third - jobs outside Parliament. The first is that spending time on other things leaves them with less to lavish on their constituents. The second is that, in some cases, it may lead to a conflict of interest. For example, an MP may be a board member of a construction company that is seeking permission to build in an area of natural beauty, a development opposed by many people in the local area, which is also his or her constituency. Or the MP might be paid by a private company with an interest in promoting or preventing a particular item of legislation.

MPs have lots of second jobs. Some of them are doctors, some lawyers, many have a portfolio of directorships, a few appear on Have I Got News For You. And a not inconsiderable proportion of Labour MPs have second jobs working for the government. One of them, the MP for Kirkaldy, spends so much time at his second job, being prime minister, that it's doubtful his constituents ever see him.

If being a board member of a construction company might potentially give rise to a conflict of interest, being a government minister is one long conflict of interest. Say you're a health minister, and a hospital in your constituency is earmarked for closure. What do you do? If .you exert your influence to save the hospital, you are serving your constituents all right, but at the expense of people in other constituencies who also pay your ministerial salary. Alternatively, if you do nothing, then your constituents can quite justifiably complain that they have been deprived of the aid of their local MP in an important matter of concern to them. It's a no win situation. As a popular Jewish preacher once put it, "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other."

Ministers have various ways of dealing with this dilemma. In 2006, Hazel Blears joined a picket line in Salford to protest against the closure of a local maternity ward. But of course she wasn't a health minister. If she had been, it's likely that the ward would have been saved. Some other maternity ward would have had to close instead. I doubt that even Blears would have had the chutzpah to stand on a picket line holding up a placard denouncing a decision that she herself had made.

But if the choice facing ministers is between serving their constituencies and serving the wider interests of the government, the expectation must be that they will resolve it in favour of the state as a whole. Similarly, European commissioners are appointed by national governments, but thereafter their loyalty is explicitly to the EU as a whole. So any argument against MPs holding second jobs must, perforce, applies to government ministers. And that is even before one considers the other supposed impediment to outside employment, that of time.

Being a minister is a full-time job. It is, in fact, a more than full-time job. Senior ministers are supposed to be on call 24 hours a day. As Foreign Secretary, David Miliband spends much of his time contributing to Britain's carbon emissions. Other ministers travel around almost as much. And even ministers who aren't jetting around the world will be working tirelessly on their administrative duties, their legislative plans and (more often) their political positioning. Their constituents will be a long way down their list of priorities.

The Telegraph argued the other day that for MPs to have outside interests is both proper and good. It enables them to bring a wider perspective on life outside the Westminster village. And it warns that there is "a real risk" that treating such interests as analagous to the expenses scam "will deter high-achieving individuals from entering politics" I agree. Moreover, to ban MPs from having any second career or source of income would leave them completely reliant upon public subsidy - and upon their party whips. But the leader also comments:

It is obviously wrong if a member's outside interests start to affect his ability to perform his primary tasks, which are to represent his constituents; to play an intelligent and informed part in parliamentary debate; and to hold the government to account.

There is one category of outside interest - and only one - that is incompatible with all three of these parliamentary duties. And that is being a government minister. Unlike other "outside interests", moreover, being a minister cannot be said to confer the benefit of wider experience of life outside the tight and myopia-inducing circlces of career politics.

The framers of the US constitution, in their wisdom, decided that the jobs of representing the people and governing the country were and should be wholly separate. The British system has devoloped differently, without much attempt at logic, from a system not unlike the American one (in which ministers were dependent on the favour of the king) to a system in which most ministers were directly accountable to the electorate through their membership of the House of Commons - although the paucity of willing talent available to Gordon Brown has altered the picture somewhat today.

If you accept that being an MP carries with it no specific duties or responsibilities beyond membership of the House of Commons, and that the majority of constituency work is largely irrelevant time filler, then the present system, with its part-time MPs and full-time ministers claiming to "represent" the people who elected them is not objectionable. But in that case, why bother paying them at all?