It’s time to ban MPs from having second jobs

With a few possible exceptions

 

There is a grim irony in the fact that, whilst increasing number of Britons are having to take second jobs just to keep their head above water, Conservative MPs are aggressively defending the right to hold lucrative directorships alongside their main role representing their constituents.

The former is a symptom of the post-crash ‘flexible’ (see insecure) economy, whilst anger at the latter is perhaps a symptom of bourgeoning public distrust of the political class.

But that doesn’t mean that public anger is not justified. In my experience most MPs go into politics because they want to make a difference; but far too many are letting their peers down, and it risks undermining our democracy.

Labour leader Ed Miliband clearly recognises this, hence the strength of his comments yesterday: “We’ve got to settle this issue of second jobs once and for all so we remove any suspicion that MPs are working not for their constituents’ interests but someone else’s interests.”

Without wishing to sound cynical, the other reason Miliband is pushing hard for a ban on second jobs is presumably because the practice is more prevalent among Conservative MPs than Labour MPs. 91 Tory MPs have second jobs, compared to 21 Labour MPs. Tory MPs with second jobs have this year declared £4.4m of earnings in the register of members’ interest. Meanwhile Labour MPs have declared around £1m in earnings.

But this is beside the point. Even if you believe Miliband is right for the wrong reasons, he’s still right: it is time to ban MPs from having second jobs – with a few possible exceptions. Below are some of the arguments you are likely to hear in opposition to Miliband’s plans; and why they are wrong.

‘I need experience in the real world’

An argument is often made that MPs need to have second jobs in order to gain valuable experience of what life is like in the ‘real world’. If they work in business on the side then can better understand the needs of business, so the argument goes. Superficially this sounds entirely reasonable, but I have a not I think unreasonable quibble: why, if second jobs are about gaining valuable life experience, do MPs not moonlight by stacking shelves in supermarkets or working in a call centre?

This isn’t to try to be facetious; many Britons have to do those jobs, so why, if it really is about gaining life experience, not MPs? Why does ‘real world experience’ almost always mean a well-paid directorship?

‘MPs are not paid enough and therefore need to top up their pay with other work’

It’s often argued that paying MPs more money would attract the best people to serve the country. But surely it could also be argued that paying MPs too much might result in more people seeking to enter parliament for reasons of self-interest. When people argue that “the best people will go elsewhere because the money is better”, I want to reply that they cannot, then, be the best people, for if they care so much about making pots of money (as opposed to serving the country) they probably aren’t the sort of representative we want.

Yes, MPs should be paid well, but they are already paid nearly three times the average UK full time salary. There are no fixed hours, you get a long summer break and you can retire at a time of your own choosing. You are also in most instances – unless you do something particularly egregious – guaranteed tenure for four to five years, something increasingly rare in our post-crash ‘flexible’ economy.

‘It doesn’t take up much of my time’

Analysis by the Guardian in 2013 found that 20 MPs made more money from their outside jobs than they did from their Parliamentary salary, with some spending over 1,000 hours engaging in secondary employment. The point is that a second job can take up a lot of time.

Now that may be an argument in favour of limiting the number of hours an MP could work in a second job; and that’s an argument I have some sympathy with. But then we are still left with the question of why a company wants to pay a sitting MP an eye-popping sum for a few hours work in the first place? Is there not a chance that the company in question is trying to purchase influence? And what about the constituents in question? In last night’s Dispatches, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that people would be “surprised just how much free time I have”. How do the residents of Kensington feel about that?

A few caveats

Some professions require that practitioners keep their skill set up to date. For example it would be unwise, for obvious reasons, for a GP to stop practising for five or more years on entering parliament. Allowing a GP to practice for a few hours a week/month would not undermine the spirit of the policy and would run little risk of exposing MPs to undesirable influences. I also see no reason why MPs should not be able to do things like write newspaper columns when the subject matter tends often to tie in quite closely with their day job. Perhaps they should simply eschew the fee.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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