Thursday 28 November 2019 6:57 am

Ban MPs from second jobs? We should be encouraging them

John Oxley is a Conservative commentator

New governments seldom seek to discourage employment. Ministries live and die by their ability to get people into work. 

Yet in one sector, the Labour party has made a manifesto promise of reducing jobs — by banning members of parliament from taking paid work outside the House. Really, this is the wrong way around.

Parliamentarians were once expected to have a life outside politics. They were citizen legislators, enmeshed in their communities and their private business, working during the day and spending evenings in Westminster. This interaction with the real world should be encouraged, rather than wrapping the political class in a bubble.

First off, this would spur far greater connections between the corridors of parliament and the outside world. Rather than being ensconced in the rhythms of Westminster, surrounded by the politics industry, MPs would spend their days walking and working among us. Almost regardless of their occupation, they would be more tuned in to the real, daily concerns of both communities and businesses.

Having a day job would thus bring our parliamentarians into regular, unfiltered confrontations with the realities of ordinary life. 

Already, MPs with other jobs bring a wealth of experience to the Commons. Think of Dan Poulter and Philip Lee, who both maintained their work as doctors while sitting in the House — roles which would give them far more insight into the state of the NHS than any second-hand reports. This is the kind of scenario that the Labour party wishes to ban.

But beyond the experience point, any prohibition on outside interests will reduce the pool of people willing to enter politics. 

An MP is currently paid a shade less than £80,000 per year. While this is significantly more than the average wage, it cannot be enough to entice able people away from many successful careers. It is essentially a bar on attracting top talent.

People who have done well in the private sector, from sales to solicitors, can expect to earn much more than this. The salary is low even compared to high-flying public sector jobs, with MPs pulling in less than medical consultants and experienced headteachers. But public opinion is unlikely to let MPs’ pay rise to a level which competes.

That is not to say that MPs should be motivated by personal reward, but simply to note that for many it means a financial sacrifice. 

A survey of the 2010 intake found that a third of new MPs took a pay cut of over £30,000 on entering the House. Those most able to bear this drop of earnings are those with significant family wealth, or a spouse who can be the breadwinner.

By requiring MPs to abandon outside jobs, Labour’s proposals would further discourage the able and the accomplished from ordinary backgrounds from entering into politics. In contrast, by encouraging parliamentarians to have a foot in both camps, Westminster could attract more top talent.

Aside from this single issue, we should think more carefully about what our MPs are for. 

If their primary role is to be legislators, this need not be a full-time position. Parliament already goes into recess for vast swathes of the year, and even in term time rarely sits for more than half of the week. While there is no doubt that MPs fill their time with duties away from the chamber, it is unclear how necessary much of these are. 

For most MPs, constituency casework is a major use of their time. Yet this is largely a symptom of a broken system. 

MPs’ offices are expected to clear up the failings of other aspects of the state. They take up constituents’ concerns because a letter with a green portcullis header becomes top priority at whichever department has dropped the ball. 

A few decades ago, an MP would be shocked to receive two dozen letters from constituents a week. Now, they are inundated with emails across a range of issues.

This is neither a desirable nor a sensible way to run things. When it comes to the problems people face with immigration, benefits, and other state forces, we should push for our institutions to be more accessible and decentralised, rather than relying on MPs acting as champions. And while there will always be cracks in the services provided by state institutions, many small, nimble charities are better equipped to provide specialist knowledge and assistance than any MP’s office.

For businesses, it is universally accepted that getting the right people doing the right things is a key objective. In parliament, we appear to have lost this concept entirely. 

The need to be a full-time parliamentarian discourages a range of able people across the political spectrum from public life. Frankly, many cannot afford the loss of income it would mean for their family, and are further discouraged when doing so means spending a lot of time on work which, although meaningful, does not necessarily suit their skill-set or their role.

Rather than prohibiting second jobs, as Labour intends to do, parliament should encourage outside employment. This would help attract a broader range of MPs without raising their salaries, and keep them more connected to the rest of the country throughout their parliamentary careers. 

£ John Oxley is a Conservative commentator.

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