It’s fair to say that along with journalists, MPs are generally held in low regard by the public. You’ll remember the expenses scandal: the days when some bad apples charged the public for duck ponds and God only knows what else. Those days are gone. Thankfully they have us screwed down pretty tight now and the excesses of the past just couldn’t happen.
But there remains the question of moonlighting. Up till now, providing you record it in the register of interests, there has been no limitation on who else an MP can work for. That may be about to change.
For my sins I sit on a body at Westminster called the Standards Committee. For the first year of my sojourn we seemed to spend most of our time arbitrating on the inappropriate use of parliamentary stationery. Important but hardly groundbreaking. But now the debates are getting meatier.
The Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards has launched a review on the Code of Conduct by which MPs are required to abide. She will, in due course, report to my committee and we will make recommendations for change to parliament. If the committee were just made up of MPs I wouldn’t hold my breath. But half of the members are recruited from the public. And they take a different view.
One of the topics under debate is second, and subsequent, jobs. I have made a detailed submission to the review arguing for a five-point plan to regulate external employment. No sooner had I done this than some of my critics took to the internet to accuse me of hypocrisy because I own part of the company that runs the Stand comedy clubs.
Unless you want all your MPs to be shiny fresh-faced PPE graduates from Oxbridge, then people will have a range of financial and other interests on entering parliament. The task is not to pretend that these shouldn’t exist but to make sure they don’t get in the way of doing the job – either through time factors or a conflict of interests.
So, to be clear, I am talking about actual employment, where someone is contracted to do something in return for money. I am not talking about earnings from investments, savings or shares. I am not talking about being left money by your rich aunt, or winning the lottery, or any other good fortune that might befall any of us. I’m talking about jobs. And, for the record, I only have the one.
But I’m not even saying that MPs can’t have other jobs, just that there should be limits. For starters, there ought to be an explicit recognition that being an MP is a full-time job in itself. Most of my colleagues down there do put in a decent shift, but some don’t. And some, like the infamous case of Messrs Rifkind and Straw, really do think it’s a part-time gig.
It hard to define exactly what being an MP means, and because in part how someone does the job will in itself be a matter of their political outlook. Maybe the idea of a job description is fanciful. But there are basics. You really ought to be there when parliament is sitting. You really ought to attend the committee you’ve been appointed to. You really ought to be regularly available for your constituents.
It follows that if being an MP is your principal job you shouldn’t enter into a contract with anyone else that would prevent you from being able to do it. So, if you have a second job, it should be undertaken after hours, at weekends or in the holidays.
And I do believe there are some jobs MPs should not be allowed to do at all. It is surely a conflict of interest to be a legislator and also work for an organisation that is trying to influence public policy. So I argue MPs shouldn’t work for trade unions, industry organisations, public affairs agencies, or anyone else whose job is to persuade them what to do. I’ve always thought it bizarre that, providing it’s registered, there’s no prohibition on an MP working for the Chinese, or any other, government.
I also think there should also be an upper limit of the time an MP is allowed to spend not doing the day job. I’ve suggested 20 hours a week.
If we write down exactly what the limits are to second jobs it might provide the public with more confidence that we have their best interests at heart and are working hard on their behalf. In fairness, most of us, most of the time, really are.
Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East