Wednesday 25 February 2015

What is an MP's job? Thoughts on second jobs, interests and representation


Today has featured one of those opportunistic occasions that Labour love, the chance to rant and rail at their favourite targets. Their idea - ill-thought through and selective - isn't to ban MPs having a second job or a second income but to  prevent MPs having a particular sort of second job or second income. Ed Miliband even sent me an email!


It's time to stop MPs taking second jobs once and for all. Your MP should be working solely in the interests of you and your community. 
Except that Labour doesn't mean a second job but specifically "directorships and consultancies". There are a thousand other ways to get extra money - George Galloway gets paid for delightful ranting shows on foreign-owned radio and TV channels, William Hague and Tristram Hunt write history books, and MPs like Hilary Benn or Margaret Hodge can sit comfortably on their huge piles of family cash so don't need to do those outside jobs.

So what exactly is wrong with being a company director or providing your expertise to others in exchange for money? When Labour sorts apply some intelligence and thought to the idea they make the case in this manner:

Consultancies and directorships are wholly different. A business only takes a MP on in arrangements of this sort if the relationship "adds value" to the company. In other words, gives them a commercial advantage. Hence from the outset the arrangement is potentially corrupt and corrupting, placing the MP in a conflict of interest between their private arrangements and public duties.

Now the same could be argued for media appearances, book deals and much else besides but the suspicion is that the MP will put his commercial interest before that of his constituents. And a blanket ban of directorships and consultancy means that an MP couldn't remain a director of a family business or provide, say, advertising and marketing advice to old clients. I do get the point here where it applies specifically to MPs being appointed after they have become MPs - and the simple solution is to apply the same rules to MPs as they apply to local councillors.

Under your council’s code of conduct you must act in conformity with the Seven Principles of Public Life. One of these is the principle of integrity – that ‘Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.’
In this context 'resolve' means either end the interest or withdraw from any participation (speaking, voting or otherwise trying to influence) in the issue where the interest is raised. Failing to comply with this is a criminal offence.

Underlying all this though is a different argument - the idea that MPs with second jobs can't be doing the main job (one earning sixty-seven grand a year). And this rather raises the question of what we have MPs to do? What exactly is an MP's job?

Let's start here with what that MP's job isn't. It's not about writing letters to the Council about planning applications or grass cutting on the village rec. It's not about touring round the constituency visiting factories, opening fetes and attending 100th birthday parties in old people's homes. It's not about that vast volume of "case work", having a fully staffed constituency office with the MP's name plastered all over its front or getting at least three photos in every week's issue of the local paper. An MP's job is not about "working in the constituency" in any way, shape or form.

We elect MPs to represent us because we don't have the time and parliament doesn't have the space for us all to go down and decide on important matters of law and governance. This means that the MPs job is first and foremost to go down to parliament and vote, speak, argue and agitate on our behalf. It's reasonable for the MP to spend some time in the constituency so as to understand what worries and interests his constituents. But that's so the MP in informed when he or she stands up in the house and speaks, when he or she shambles through the lobby to vote or when they decide what committees, panels or groups to get involved with.

I don't think that any of this precludes that MP - any MP - having another job, an outside income. I think that activity should be transparent and, when the matter before the house, the committee or the panel relates directly to that MP's private pecuniary interests they should be barred from involvement. And that stricture should apply to the pecuniary interests of wives or husbands, children and other close family. Frankly this is a more open, honest and straightforward apprach than the selective banning of certain sorts of outside income.



Mick Anderson said...

One thing that is never mentioned by the protagonists arguing for or against this is the job of Minister. That is a second job which detracts from the job for which the MP was elected, both in time committed and for the fact that they have to vote the way the Party leader tells them. If it's not a second job, why are they paid so much extra for the promotion?

The MP with his name against the area in which I live is a Minister, and effectively invisible around here. He considers his job to be that of Minister not MP, and because this is a safe seat (as are so many) can survive ignoring the voters.

Up until about 100 years ago, if an MP was selected for Ministerial post it was tradition for him (not yet her!) to resign and seek re-election on those terms. This was to obtain approval from the electorate who he was also expected to continue to serve.

Would that this tradition were reinstated. We might still end being saddled with the same puppet, but at least he would have been reminded who he was elected to serve.

Woodsy42 said...

It's not the second job that bothers me as such. It's the morality of allowing a paid outside interest or self interest to interfere with, and bring pressure to bear on, a decision that should be taken wholly and completely in line with benefit to constituents.
As a secondary 'irritation' why should politicians be paid fees to go on TV when they are in effect doing PR work for their taxpayer funded work?

Anonymous said...

Re: Woodsy42.

Maybe the appearance money should all be paid to the Treasury - that way, the broadcaster pays, the State gains, but the MP is out of the loop.

Anonymous said...

The problem is a second job that they have because they are an MP. By banning directorships etc. you make that a bit more difficult and chuck a bit of baby out with the bath water. I think it's probably worth doing