Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Watching the worms wriggle


There used to be an advert for a large insurance company which claimed that they would never make a drama out of a crisis. It would be a piece of good advice for the current government, whose leader seems reluctant to let any crisis go past without turning it into a long drawn-out drama, largely because of a lack of attention to detail and a strange belief, which persists in the face of all experience to the contrary, that quick action (or, even better, a quick verbal promise of future action), the consequences of which have not even been considered momentarily, will make the crisis go away. He thought that the Paterson issue would go away once he instructed his MPs to do what the editor of the Telegraph told him to do, and he thought that he could kill the ‘second jobs’ issue by introducing a partial ban. The problem, as ever, is that neither was given much thought beyond the expected headlines.

One of the results today is not just that different ministers are giving different responses as to what the new policy means, but some ministers are even managing to contradict themselves. This morning, apparently, the International Trade Secretary told Times Radio that MPs should be able to work 8-10 hours a week and told BBC Breakfast that 10 or 15 hours a week was reasonable, before going on the BBC Today Programme to suggest a figure of 10 to 20 hours per week. Maybe they should just have stuck to asking her to state the length of a piece of string. The problem with the government’s approach is that every ‘quick answer’ which they come up with merely opens the door to more questions. And the detail just hasn’t been thought through.

The underlying question, which hasn’t been properly asked as yet, is ‘what are MPs for?’ Over time, the job has developed into something of a mish-mash of different and sometimes conflicting roles. The government has been trying to talk up their role as working for their constituents, and it’s true that most MPs do a lot of casework on behalf of their constituents. Or is it? From observation, most MPs delegate most of that work to their staff. It is often the caseworkers who meet with constituents, do the necessary research and write the letters; an MP with a good and well-run office has to do little more than sign the letters placed in front of him or her. And with the technology to scan signatures into computers, I wonder how many actually do even that. There is an expectation that MPs will show their face at various events in their constituencies, but it is clear that many (particularly in ‘safe’ seats) spend little time on that either.

They do have a role in passing legislation though parliament, but for most of them, that role is limited to turning up and voting the way their party’s whips tell them to vote, and many will not even have read the legislation on which they are voting. They have a theoretical role in holding the executive branch to account, and that’s a role which many of them consider to be important, but faced with an executive which follows the lead of a man who either avoids answering the question or simply lies, it’s not a role at which most of them are, or can ever be, terribly effective. And it is, in any event, more of a role for the opposition members than those on the government benches who are generally encouraged to lob soft questions to ministers rather than challenge them.

They also form the ‘gene pool’ from which ministers, shadow ministers, and committee chairs can be drawn. For those whose motivations are to do with their own careers, this may well be the most important role of all. That isn’t necessarily the view of those who put them there, though.

Idle hands make mischief as the saying goes; for many backbench MPs in a situation where the government has a secure majority of 80, a majority endangered only by its own recklessness and incompetence, it’s easy enough to see how – for all their claims of working 70-80 hour weeks – there is scope for enough of them to treat the gig as a part-time one, and enrich themselves by pursuing other avenues at the same time. Add in the culture of corruptness of a government which awards contracts, honours and benefits to its friends and donors, and the attraction to businesses of paying an MP to promote their interests is obvious. It is only those in receipt of the cheques who are naïve enough to believe that they are being paid for their expertise and knowledge rather than for their access to power.

It’s tempting to argue that all outside work should be banned, but there are a few complications. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, need to demonstrate that they are still practicing to maintain their licences, and given that they could lose their seats at the next election, it isn’t wholly unreasonable to allow them to do the minimum required to maintain the currency of their licences. There is though, as far as I’m aware, nothing which requires either that they be paid for their efforts or that they retain any monies thus earned. If their salary as an MP was tapered (like Universal Credit for example), it would be reduced by the amount of any external earnings. Or they could simply donate the extra to charity. Lots of MPs also get paid by the media, whether for writing columns or being interviewed; one could legitimately argue that that is part of their responsibility to communicate with their constituents, and express their political views. But aren’t they, in effect, already being paid for doing precisely that through their salary?

It isn’t just about outside work. In some ways, being paid to do something is more honest than receiving gifts (free holidays in Mustique or Málaga, anyone?) for, allegedly, no consideration at all.  It is true that some MPs get paid less as an MP than they might get paid for doing other work (and I have myself fought elections knowing on some occasions that such would be the outcome), but a salary of over £80,000 a year puts them in the highest 5% of UK citizens. There is no evidence at all that increasing the salary would draw in more talent; indeed, many might suspect that it would simply draw in more people whose interest is more in the money than in any concept of public service. In any event, most electors don’t vote on the basis of the candidates’ ability and experience anyway, they vote according to the colour of the rosette pinned to their clothing.

Any system of rules which attempt to define which outside earnings are acceptable and which are not will leave loopholes and grey areas, and the unscrupulous ( and the ‘unscrupulous community’, if I may coin a phrase, often seems to be over-represented amongst politicians) will take advantage. In an attempt to overcome a run of bad publicity, Johnson has opened a large can of worms. The only way to shut it completely is to cap MPs earnings at the level of their already generous salary. I can confidently predict that the worms will continue to wriggle for the foreseeable future.

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