Expert Comment: Outside Interests and Members of ParliamentTuesday 24 February 2015
Bill Jones, Senior Honorary Research Fellow (and former Professor of Politics and History) discusses what the Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind 'sting' says about MPs' pay and social backgrounds, and the ethics of the 'honourable members.'
My first reaction to hearing about the 'sting' on Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind was that, given the regularity of such operations, their naivety was astonishing, especially when one considers these two wily senior politicians both once held the Foreign Secretary portfolio. They both claim that, gullibility notwithstanding, they broke no parliamentary rules and reject any suggestion that their behaviour was questionable.
That it was deeply embarrassing however, is undeniable. Straw claimed that his normal daily charge for speaking was £5000 per day- more than twice the average wage monthly rate; Rifkind, that he 'received no income'- when he receives £67K per year plus generous allowances not to mention a pension plan to kill for.
Both have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Conservative whip has been withdrawn from Rifkind. Both men are in limbo while their cases are considered but the case reveals once again a number of recurring opaque issues concerning MP's pay; the social background of MPs; and the perennial question of their integrity.
Firstly many claim that at three times the average salary, MPs are pretty well paid. Compared to those below average earnings they clearly are but if parliament wants to attract able people who might otherwise go into business or the professions, it surely has to offer comparable salaries, especially when the cost of families are considered. I would argue for a higher salary for MPs at around £85,000 but with a trimming of allowances and pensions.
Secondly a criticism of modern MPs is that they are not drawn from a representative stratum of society. It is true that Tories tend to be businessmen and Labour MPs teachers or other public sector workers. Increasingly though, politicians are elected without any experience of ordinary work-life; rather, they are political research assistants, media managers, think tank personnel, like many of the leading politicians of the day, for example Ed Miliband (and his brother David), Ed Balls and David Cameron. Critics claim such an expanding group in parliament, reduces its collective wisdom on such matters as the economy and how people live their lives. Better, some argue, that MPs are allowed to pursue outside interests- directors of companies, journalists, lawyers- so that parliament's deliberations benefit.
Finally - a question as old as politics itself- can we trust MPs to be dedicated to the public rather their own private interests? Parliament as an institution has long been founded on the concept of the 'honourable member', that MPs are worthy repositories of the best possible intentions, whose integrity should never be questioned. So the forms of parliamentary address are all couched in terms of how every MP is 'honourable': an assumption of unimpeachable honesty and dedication to the common good. So until the expenses crisis in 2009, MPs were allowed to claim expenses up to £250 without a receipt, a situation which would, for a start, induce apoplexy in most university finance officers.
Sadly we have to conclude that MPs are not immune to the attractions of material self advancement and have to operate within the restrictive expenses regimes familiar to the rest of society. We also have to accept that MPs outside interests should be curbed and not stray more than a few nano - measurements beyond the concerns of their constituents whom they are paid to represent. To alleviate their desire for more reasonable compensation, however, I think a more substantial salary package is justified.