Are our MP’s too open to powerful vested interests?

Catching MPs with their hands in the till might be becoming a bit of a pastime for circulation-hungry newspaper editors, except that in exposing Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind for discussing consultancy work with a fictitious Chinese company in a sting operation, perhaps what’s really happened is that the Daily Telegraph have again drawn attention to something most MPs do to supplement their income. It has however become a sore point with the public at large: 60% of people disapprove, according to a YouGov poll. The issue also however raises the question of how MPs make a living, to the ways business and other interests gain access and influence, and indeed to how we as a democracy pay for representative government. On the face of it, the matter makes some headlines, and yet there are much deeper questions behind the issue that won’t go away and need addressing. Are our MPs too open to the influence of powerful vested interests?

MPs and outside work

The two MPs appear to have been discussing with a seemingly potential client how they can get access to high levels in government and what they might charge for such consultancy work. Both are keen to say that they were working within the rules, and that the practice is widespread as can be seen by inspecting MP’s register of interests. Both can be said to be MPs with good reputations, former senior ministers in the twilight phase of their careers.

However, by way of background, there has been a lot of concern recently about MP’s honesty and integrity. The Telegraph itself exposed large-scale abuse of the expenses system in 2009, resulting in the prosecution of a number of MPs for making false claims and a major overhaul of MPs’ pay and expenses and how the process is managed and scrutinised. We now have an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to set salaries and expenses and to monitor MPs performance as against the agreed rules.

However, the whole issue led to many resignations and to what many consider to have been a serious decline in the public’s trust in MPs. When the issue died down, it was the crisis in trust that we have been left with, along with the decline in engagement between voters and what many see as a “political class” with increasing numbers being professional politicians out of touch with voters.

This is the context in which the latest fuss has emerged about MPs’ outside activities.

How we pay for politics

A basic concern must surely be confidence that MPs act in our best interests and can be trusted to so do. That trust can get undermined when evidence emerges of MP’s personal activities unrelated to their primary representative role.

There are those who have argued in the past that we actually don’t pay MPs enough! If you look across the Atlantic, Congressmen have a whole raft of staff to support them and are able to carry out a wide range of activities which would make a UK MP go green with envy. Here we currently pay MP’s £67,000, going up to £75K in 2015, along with a set of expenses to cover office staff, accommodation, travel and other political activities related to their role. MPs live and work in London, which is now one of the most expensive cities in the world, and have to maintain a constituency presence which often means they buy a house there and travel backwards and forwards between the two. They also undertake other Parliamentary work, such as being on Parliamentary Committees which also take up time and travel. They employ staff to manage the big burden of constituency work, and ofter run an office in London and another in their constituency. The list goes on. It is costly. The hours worked are very anti-social and can work against family life, which for example can make it difficult for women MP’s in our still-sexist society!

It is not surprising therefore that MP’s get outside work to supplement their income, provided that they declare such interests in the MPs’ register of financial interests. It is a job that is very precarious: you can be out on your neck in a surprise election. Yes, you get a pension but that depends on how long you had the job, like other jobs. They also have to consider their future, again like the rest of us. A few MPs get very lucrative work after they leave politics, but many don’t.

Historically, once upon a time MPs weren’t paid, which meant they either had to have private means, which favoured the wealthy, or might be paid by a sponsoring body like a Trade Union. Only since just before the First World War has the practice of paying MP’s been adopted, and then for a long time on a small amount. Also politics didn’t previously take up a huge amount of time and thus it was quite normal for MPs to follow a paid outside job.

Our expectations have not surprisingly changed and yet we are reluctant to foot the bill for what is required of today’s MP. Many argue that, as in any organisation, if we are to attract good quality MPs, we need to pay accordingly.

If as is being suggested by Mr Miliband, we stop outside activities, we may have to look again at how we pay for good MPs to serve us as we want.

This also links with the question about funding of political parties. We don’t pay for it, but we complain about the exposure politicians have to wealthy or trade union interests who stump up a lot of the money and not surprising expect some degree of payback. It is being argued that parties should be state-funded, to guard against this perceived problem.

Lobbying by outside interests

The other side of the issue is also how outside interests seek to influence the political process. If MPs are available for say consultancy work, there are plenty of people and organisations wanting to gain some leverage in influencing policy-making by recruiting an MP with good connections, especially if they have a reputation. It’s a lucrative industry, with big lobbying organisations involved.

While today there is concern about how lobbying is working in practice, there is a long tradition by which interests have held some degree of representation other than by the elective process. In fact before the Great Reform Act of 1832, representation of “interests” was seen as a good thing, almost as a counter-balance to the “slavish” influence of the rude and ignorant and the hazards of the hustings. One can argue that such access is an important channel by which different groups and bodies can participate in politics, given the inadequacies of one-person-one-vote once every five years as currently stipulated. You might not want a business lobby to exercise influence but you might want to lobby madly to stop a bill you disagree with, and visa versa.

Again, the issue is often one of transparency. The trouble many have with current lobbying rules is that the legislative process and decision-making isn’t fully open. We don’t know what we can’t see. Thus for example, according to this view, measures to mitigate against man-made climate change might be inhibited by lobbying by powerful vested interests who stand to lose from any measures. It is being said that, with increased voter apathy and the decline in ordinary party membership, the way is open for powerful vested interests to manipulate the political process without adequate democratic oversight. The process must be seen to be above any charge of corruption.

Attempts have been made to set up and develop a register of lobbyists, as most recently with the Transparency of Lobbying Act of 2014. However, the complaint has been made that there is no means to monitor access to ministers during the policy-making process before bills reach Parliament or in policy implementation. However the Act did at the same time limit the activities of NGOs in non-party campaigning in the year before an election. People said that the Act was too one-sided and called it the “Gagging Act”.

All in all, there is an ongoing debate about transparency in politics and the need to prevent corruption from seeping into the political process, and this concern reflects too a widespread disengagement with Westminster politicians which is fueling the populist movements in the 2015 election campaign.

Reinforcing a negative view of politicians

This latest scandal won’t help the major parties win votes and could help the populist insurgents, since it reinforces the public perception that “they are all the same” and in it for themselves. Thus, they say, vote for the populist movements and kick out the rascals. It is not a healthy situation for UK politics.

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