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Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification)

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of remunerated employment of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes.

My Bill seeks to regulate the remunerated employment that Members of Parliament may undertake. In short, it would bring to an end some of the more unacceptable aspects of moonlighting by right hon. and hon. Members, something which the public deplore and which serves only to bring Parliament into disrepute.

There has been much hand-wringing by political commentators and politicians about the declining esteem in which Parliament is held. We are right to be concerned about the rising cynicism and declining trust in our political institutions. Indeed, the House itself recognised many of those problems in the 2004 report from the Modernisation Committee entitled “Connecting Parliament with the Public”. The report noted:

“The legitimacy of the House of Commons, as the principal representative body in British democracy, rests upon the support and engagement of the electorate. The decline in political participation and engagement in recent years, as well as in levels of trust in politicians, political parties and the institutions of State should be of concern to every citizen. But it should be of particular concern to the House of Commons. Politicians have always scored low on levels of trust but even so there is a noticeable downward trend, with fewer and fewer people trusting politicians. Lower levels of trust are translating into a disconnection from the institutions of democracy. The fall in election turnout from a post-war high of 84 per cent. in 1950 to 59 per cent.”—

a pitiful 59 per cent.—

“in 2001 is the most obvious indicator of this decline. Turnout at elections in the UK is now lower than most other European countries.”

The report concluded:

“It serves no-one if we make it difficult for voters to understand what their elected representatives are doing. Too often the impression is given that the House of Commons is a private club run for the benefit of its Members, where members of the public are tolerated only on sufferance.”

Given that the latest Register of Members’ Interests, published in March, reveals that a quarter of Members of this House are pursuing parallel careers as company directors, consultants or in the courts, it might have been more appropriate had the Modernisation Committee’s report been entitled, “Reconnecting MPs with Parliament”. With the possible exemption of the “cash for questions” scandal, it is difficult, in this day and age, to think of anything more likely to reduce the standing of the House of Commons than substantial numbers of MPs drawing a £60,000-a-year salary to carry out a full-time job while moonlighting in the City or elsewhere in order to line their own pockets. If hon. Members are able fully to discharge their duties to their constituents and to Parliament on a part-time basis, then surely it is only right and proper that they should draw only a part-time salary. Funnily enough, I do not see a huge queue of stars from the Register of Members’ Interests wanting to go down that particular road.

As we have heard in this Chamber before, the work of a Member of Parliament has expanded hugely over the past 50 years. Most of us struggle to do all that we have to do in this place and in our constituencies within the confines of a 70-hour week, or sometimes longer. In the 1950s, according to figures provided by the House of Commons post office, the average number of letters received by hon. Members was between 15 and 25 a week. That has exploded to between 300 and 500 individual communications thanks in part to fax, e-mail and the 24/7 media world that we all now inhabit. In order to cope with the increase in workload, there has been, quite rightly, an increase in the resources for MPs offices to enable us to provide a professional full-time service to our constituents. Given that hon. Members on both sides of the House claim the vast majority of those allowances, how then can some of our colleagues continue to treat membership of this House as a part-time occupation?

I have to admit that I was as sceptical as anyone else when I arrived in this place 10 years ago, particularly after the sleaze of the fag-end years of the last Conservative Administration, when it seemed that MPs were available for hire, but I have largely changed my mind. Like any profession with a mixed ability intake, we have the good, the bad and the indifferent. However, contrary to the view peddled in much of the media, I now have no hesitation in stating that the majority of conscientious Members of the House of Commons are the hardest-working people I have ever met in my life—and certainly a lot more diligent than the journalists who seek to portray us as lazy, indolent and self-serving.

That said, we shoot ourselves in the foot somewhat given that 25 per cent. of our number work in other jobs. That would simply not be tolerated by any other employer. In my view, the public, who pay our wages, have a right to expect a full-time commitment from their Member of Parliament. Our salary of £60,000 is more than double the average wage of my constituents, and in many parts of the country it is worth considerably more than that. We cannot expect the public to hold us and this place in any higher esteem until we adopt the same standards of a full day’s pay for a full day’s work that are expected anywhere else in the modern world. If some hon. Members think that we are underpaid and worth more, they should have the courage to argue the case openly. We should not be sneaking off to the boardrooms to top up our salaries.

It is probably worth nailing the lie that it is possible to have an extensive portfolio of directorships, consultancies and other outside interests without affecting attendance in the Commons. A quick trawl of the voting records of the top five outside earners for 2005-06 shows that between them they average less than 50 per cent. participation in all Commons Divisions. That compares badly with the average participation rate for all MPs in the same period—73 per cent.

Members may spot a remarkable similarity between my Bill and the Bill proposed by my friend and former colleague Peter Bradley in January 2002. Sadly, the Bradley Bill was lost through lack of time—and Peter Bradley lost his seat through lack of votes—but the arguments for regulating the outside employment of MPs are as strong as they were five years ago. In fact, there has been a slight increase in the number of MPs registering second jobs, largely explained by the increase in the number of Conservative MPs entering the House at the 2005 election. My research reveals that 29 per cent. of current MPs have registered paid employment, representing 55 per cent. of Conservatives, 29 per cent. of Liberal Democrats and 14 per cent. of Labour MPs. Those figures drop to 51 per cent., 24 per cent. and 9 per cent. respectively when the proposed exemptions in my Bill are taken into consideration.

As with the Bradley Bill, I have tried not to be too prescriptive. There are things we do that are compatible with our public duties. Most of us write articles, contribute to pamphlets on policy development, or undertake useful work on behalf of charities or not-for-profit organisations. We are doing this stuff as part of the day job, and it should not be subject to restriction or regulation, hence the exemptions in the Bill. What I am seeking to achieve is to end the practice of moonlighting in second or third jobs—in the case of one hon. Member, 14 other jobs—in addition to serving as a Member of Parliament. To quote Peter Bradley,

“The House of Commons has become the epicentre of the black economy.”— [Official Report, 15 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 170.]

It is time to call a halt to those practices.

In the time remaining, I would like to examine the performance of the shadow Cabinet. Of the 23 Members of this House who are in the shadow Cabinet, seven are listed as having third jobs. I say “third jobs” because of course they are constituency MPs as well. Between them, those seven have no less than 32 directorships and consultancies. What is the issue here? I would respectfully suggest that it is the fact that the taxpayer forks out £5 million in Short money to assist Her Majesty’s Opposition in discharging their duties. Is it not about time to impose a condition whereby in order to receive that great big dollop of public cash, shadow Cabinet members and Opposition Front Benchers must relinquish any remunerated employment, as is required of all Government Ministers?

In summary, the Bill offers MPs a choice, which is a choice that many of our constituents would love to be offered: be a member of the board or a Member of Parliament, but you cannot be both.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Martin Salter, Ms Karen Buck, Mrs. Joan Humble, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, David Wright, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Burgon, Angela Eagle, Mr. Kevan Jones and Joan Ruddock.

Members of Parliament (employment Disqualification)

Martin Salter accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of remunerated employment of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 105].