It’s very easy to get angry at MPs. At moments like this, when a surge in press interest is putting story after unbecoming story in front of a disgusted public, a crackdown on lucrative outside earnings feels very tempting indeed.
But not for nothing are we taught to be suspicious of temptation. If the problem is an underwhelming political class, it is scarcely obvious that making MPs poorer is any sort of solution.
The problem with the fallout from the Owen Paterson scandal is that it risks conflating two different issues. The first is Members of Parliament having outside earnings. The second is lobbying. The second is already prohibited, there are rules in place and, despite the Government’s best efforts, those rules have done their job.
But the outside earnings one is a much broader question, and we should think very carefully before introducing measures which would make our legislators even more creatures of the system than they are at present.
The argument most often advanced to defend MPs having outside jobs is the need for those in certain professions, such as medicine or accountancy, to remain up to speed with their qualifications and licences in the event that they need to return to their careers after leaving politics. This is a serious concern that advocates of a blanket ban on second jobs must address.
So too is the question of what will become of the Law Officers if practising lawyers are forbidden from sitting in Parliament. There has been much spluttering about Sir Geoffrey Cox in the papers today, though complaints about him voting from a tropical island look like little more than envy or spite.
If the question of divided focus and loyalties is the problem, then it poses the challenge of what to do about ministers. Holding government office is a second job, no two ways about it. The system even used to reflect this by forcing MPs who wished to take a ministerial post to fight a by-election, in order to secure their constituents’ consent for such a change in allegiance.
The so-called ‘payroll vote’ also poses another problem. A strict ban on outside earnings strips MPs of any prospect of supplementing their income except promotion to Government. It would thus greatly increase the soft power of the whips, and the value of the payroll posts a minister could dangle before ambitions Members.
If we want independent-minded MPs willing and able to chart their own course through Westminster business, allowing them a financial hinterland is probably the price.
Finally, there’s the talent question. For better or worse, able people are commonly able to earn far more outside Parliament. Moreover, they can do so without the constant caustic regard of press and public.
If we want better people in public life, we need to pay for them. But the public don’t want us to pay for them. Nor do they seem to want them to be able to make it up elsewhere, even subject to properly enforced rules about undue influence.
Sometimes, public anger is simply not a good guide to policy. The people demanding that MPs simply settle for £80,000 a year, and any who won’t simply go elsewhere, are writing a simple recipe for a politics of the independently wealthy, political fanatics, and people for whom £80,000 is simply more than they could hope to earn in the private sector.
The political class that would result would do nothing to raise the standing of politicians in the eyes of the public.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer to what we want our politicians to be. The old model of spending the morning in practice or at the bar before legislating late into the night favoured certain professions and those based in London. Even today, it is much easier for an accountancy firm to make allowances for a partner’s parliamentary duties than it is for say, a school to do the same for a teacher.
But given the choice between our current Parliament and one even shorter on talent and entirely in the shadow of government patronage, I know which I’d prefer.
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