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MPs’ second jobs have come under recent scrutiny after Conservative MP Owen Paterson was found guilty of breaching Parliamentary lobbying rules last month. Stories of the eye-wateringly high salaries some MPs earn through outside employment have dominated newspaper headlines since, raising doubts over MPs’ abilities to put their constituents’ needs above corporate interests. With trust in UK politicians plummeting to a historic low after the scandal, the Conservatives need to take a clear stance on second jobs, not only to avoid sleaze allegations from miring the party again but, crucially, to restore public faith in Parliament.

The debate on whether MPs should engage in work outside of their Parliamentary responsibilities is a long-running one. MPs already receive an annual salary of nearly £82,000, which is significantly above the average national income of £30,000 a year. On top of this, MPs can claim expenses for accommodation, staff, and travel between Parliament and their constituency. With a salary that puts them in the UK’s top 5% of earners, why would MPs want to have a second job?

Admittedly, there is a strong case for allowing some types of second jobs. For instance, those in public service such as doctors and nurses need to continue practicing if they want to keep their licence. As such, some MPs do a few hospital shifts a month or run a GP surgery once a week to enable them to easily re-enter the profession full-time once they leave politics. This is especially important for MPs in marginal seats whose job security is particularly tenuous and who depend on these second jobs as something to fall back on. Few oppose these kinds of second jobs, and Parliament is ultimately enhanced by the front-line experience of such MPs.

The number of MPs with such public sector jobs is extremely small however; just six out of 650 MPs have declared work as a doctor or nurse in the latest register of interests. The vast majority of MPs with second jobs work as consultants or advisors for private businesses. These MPs earn high salaries in exchange for political contacts and insider knowledge of Parliamentary processes that can increase businesses’ chances to strike lucrative deals. For instance, Owen Paterson was found to have repeatedly used his position as an MP to approach ministers and secure meetings otherwise unavailable without his support on behalf of companies paying him as a consultant. This demonstrates the unfair advantages that private companies can enjoy when they employ MPs as advisers. Such consultancy jobs are at best unnecessary given MPs’ considerable salaries, but they enable outright lobbying at worst, putting the very nature of Britain’s democracy under question.

The current rules allow MPs to act as consultants and advisers to businesses as long as they declare it in the register of financial interests and do not lobby the government on behalf of their employers. This may not remain the case for long. After Labour’s own call to curb second jobs, Boris Johnson set out plans to ban MPs from working as paid parliamentary strategists, advisers, or political consultants. He further proposed that any outside role should be “within reasonable limits” to ensure MPs still fully carry out their duties. 

There is doubt over the efficacy of these proposals, however. The Government has not yet agreed on what a ‘reasonable limit’ is, with cabinet minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP confusingly suggesting the restriction could mean a cap of either 20, 10 to 15, or just eight hours a week. Furthermore, the question of who fits the definition of a ‘parliamentary strategist, adviser, or political consultant’ is still ill-defined and could create a number of edge cases, such as whether paid chairs of trade associations would fall under this category. Most MPs also describe their work in general terms and avoid the mention of politics when detailing the kind of advice they offer as consultants. As a result, these proposals might not have even covered Owen Paterson himself, as the former MP was registered as a consultant, not a ‘political’ one. He also worked less than five hours a week in this job so the proposed ‘reasonable’ time limits would not have affected him. 

Analysis of what is known of the proposed changes so far suggests that as few as two out of 48 MPs with consultancy jobs would fit under these narrow rules. Instead of worrying about semantics, the government should clearly ban MPs from holding any external jobs in the private sector. After all, public opinion is largely in favour of this, as a poll for the Observer found that 45% of people supported a ban on MP’s extra work compared to 25% who opposed it. 

MPs ultimately have a public duty to represent and serve the constituents who elected them, not the interests of private companies bankrolling them. A clear ban on MPs having second jobs in the private sector could not only restore much needed public trust in politicians, but also put an end to brazen conflicts of interest. It is about time the rules stamped this out.

Ioana is currently Research Assistant at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: pexels]