Thursday, 30 April 2009

The irrelevance of MPs' additional income

The latest government initiative is to try to deflect attention from the dishonest profiteering of Labour members through the generous MPs' expenses rules. Gordon Brown wants MPs with paid employment outside the House of Commons to declare how much they earn because he believes, probably correctly, that more Conservatives than Labour members have such jobs. As I understand the current rules they have to declare sources of additional income but not the amount received. On tonight's Question Time we had the usual "balanced" panel of two Labour Party supporters, one hard-left Welsh Nationalist, one Lib Dem and one Conservative. On this topic being reared we heard exactly the type of confused, ignorant and envious arguments Gordon sought to elicit.

Those arguments were three: (i) MPs should work only as MPs otherwise they can't do the job properly, (ii) they get paid enough so taking other work is just greedy and (iii) they shouldn't do other work because being an MP is a career in itself.

The first of these points is quite stunningly absurd, yet it was pressed to the hilt by the Labour MP on the panel, Hilary Benn, a cabinet minister. Perhaps the heat of the studio lights caused him to forget his own position. He has two jobs. He is an MP and he is a government minister. I have never heard anyone suggest he is unable to represent his constituents adequately because of the time taken to do his other work. I have to be fair and acknowledge that ministers receive additional secretarial assistance to help them deal with constituency correspondence. No doubt some routine enquiries from constituents which would otherwise be dealt with by the MP himself are instead delegated to assistants, but that does not mean that the heavy burden of cabinet office leaves the minister's constituents unrepresented.

In any event, whether a particular MP represents his constituents adequately cannot be judged by whether he has other interests (be they paid work, needlepoint or watching large ladies wrestling in mud), it can be judged only by how he does his job as an MP and his constituents are the sole judges of that. Some MPs don't do a good job as constituency MPs even though they devote all their time to it, others have the ability to do all sorts of additional things without ever providing a less than first class service to those they represent. I would rather have as my MP someone who is able to do a lot of things well than someone who is either frustrated by being limited to only one role or struggles even to do that. We have all met people with extraordinary amounts of energy and who operate at a level of efficiency we could not dream of meeting. You see it in every walk of life and no one would think of saying that those who are capable to doing more should be prevented from doing so (although the EU does its best through the working time directive).

On the second point a lady in tonight's audience bristled at the thought of the Conservative MP on the panel earning £24,000 from a non-executive company directorship in addition to his MP's salary. She observed that many can only dream of earning £24,000 for their only job at which they work long hours. No doubt that is true, but it is neither here nor there. After all, those people would not be filling the vacancy if the MP were forced to resign that directorship. I wasn't sure whether her point went any further than just expressing envy at the MP's fortunate position. I suppose it is possible that she was arguing for an absolute income cap at the rate of pay received by MPs (£64,700, I believe), no, that can't be possible, it's just too absurd for words. It seems to be part of the character of many Brits these days to act with spiteful envy towards those with more money than them. Perhaps this is not surprising given the levelling-down culture that permeates state education and much of the output of television, it will take a long time to turn it round if ever the will exists to do so. In the meantime all that can be done is to argue against it point-by-point. In the case of the MP earning an additional £24,000, there is no benefit in depriving him of that income (and the Exchequer of the top-rate income tax paid on it).

In relation to this second point a further and very important issue arises. Learning how much MPs earn from consultancies or directorships tells us the cube root of nothing about anything relevant to how they do their work as MPs. As I mentioned above, some have the ability to undertake all sorts of additional work while representing their constituents very well, others do not. Take two MPs of identical ability who each can take on one consultancy or directorship requiring twenty days' work a year and still be good MPs. Twenty one days and their constituents suffer, nineteen days and they have a wasted day on their hands. One takes a consultancy for twenty eight days and received £10,000, the other takes an identical job for twenty days and receives £25,000. The amount paid to them tells us nothing, indeed it is entirely misleading because the one earning less is compromising his role as an MP whereas the other is not. The figures of how much they earn are meaningless except in stoking envy among Labour's core voters and, presumably, increasing their chance of voting Labour at the next election.

The third point is, perhaps, the most worrying of all. For a good twenty years we have seen a steady fall in the calibre of MPs and ministers as more and more "career politicians" have filled the House of Commons. Only one member of the current cabinet had anything even vaguely approximating to a successful career before entering politics. Some of them practised law at a junior level for a few years, at least one was a teacher for a decade or so, the rest (apart from Alan Johnson) have been full-time career politicians since university. Mr Johnson was a postman and rose through the ranks of a Trade Union to a senior position. Only he had a career first and then entered politics, all the rest have so little experience of the outside world that it is hardly surprising the current government is a complete shambles with no grasp of the real consequences of their policies.

I am sure poor Gordon will shore-up a tiny part of his party's core support among the bitter and envious by this measure, but it is yet another piece of shallow and meaningless political gesturing from a man who is proving every day how he has nothing else to him.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Ho hum.

OT1H, provided an MP discloses all his other income to his constituents, it's up to them to decide whether to re-elect him.

OTOH, what stinks is that these MPs (Labour as much as Tory or Lib Dem) get paid oodles for being very part time directors of companies about whom the MP knows nothing in order to further that business' cause in Parliament. But again, it's up to constituents to elect somebody else.

james c said...


Pretty much spot on. My only quibble would be that previous rules on disclosing outside income were easily abused. For example, an MP would be on a retainer from some city firm but disclose only a part of it, on the grounds that the rest was not for political services.

I therefore suspect that full disclosure will be rather embarrassing for some MPS.

AgainsTTheWall said...

Some nice points.

I would comment that many employers require their employees not to take second jobs. No reason why the general public should feel different about their MPs.

And of course there is not a single MP who wont claim (when it suits) that they are terribly overburdened scrutinising and holding to account the executive, work all the hours God sends to right wrongs for their constituents and have no real family life as a result.