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The Paterson scandal shows that we need major parliamentary reform
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The Paterson scandal shows that we need major parliamentary reform

Monday 8 November 2021

Paying MPs more may be controversial but it is only the first of many structural changes required to clean up the Commons

Last week was a dismal one for parliament. On Wednesday, the government initiated a demented attempt to save Owen Paterson from the consequences of his egregious breach of the lobbying rules. Less than 24 hours later Boris Johnson ordered a rapid retreat, leading to Paterson’s resignation. One Tory MP messaged me with the blunt assertion: “We are led by idiots”.

Paterson’s crime was to lobby on behalf of companies paying him substantial sums of money. He was entirely unsubtle about it, apparently confident that, as long as he personally believed the claims made by the companies, his behaviour was permissible. But it is, of course, entirely possible to lobby in a much more discreet way: a quiet word to a ministerial colleague in a corridor, a message passed via a mutual friend, a WhatsApp that no official will see, and so on. Which is not to say that all MPs do it; just that we have no way of telling whether or not they are, beyond their personal assurances.

As the scandal drifted towards its predictable conclusion on Thursday, I tweeted that MPs should be banned from having second jobs, and that their basic pay be substantially increased as a quid pro quo. The first part of the tweet received close to universal approval, at least for private sector roles.

Talk to most people from democracies outside the UK and they find it baffling that elected representatives have multiple jobs, often with companies that have government contracts or close interest in legislation. The opportunities for conflicts of interest are obvious.

In contrast, the idea that MPs’ pay should be increased was much more contentious (and would, no doubt, poll about as well as reintroducing smallpox). All the same: most of the arguments that were made against were not compelling. 

Some thought that a salary (£81,932 pa) well above the national average was plenty; but the comparison group should be composed of other senior public sector jobs. The average salaries of NHS consultants, secondary school headteachers or senior civil servants are all at least £20,000 higher. And, while these are all important and responsible jobs, the work of those that hold them is mostly felt at the level of specific institutions; whereas MPs not only directly serve a large community, but regularly take decisions that affect the future of the whole country. Had three of them voted a different way on one 2019 vote, for instance, we might still be in the European Customs Union.

Others felt that MPs’ pay should be a lot less, perhaps tied to the average in their constituency. While this would probably poll well, it would be disastrous in practice, creating a structural disincentive for individuals to stand in poorer areas. Even worse, it would have the paradoxical effect of increasing the number of independently wealthy MPs – as those who wanted to earn a good living for a difficult job were forced elsewhere. 

It is frankly bizarre that people, especially on the Left, think it is wrong for money to be a motivating factor for this particular kind of work – in contrast to their support for trade unions that make this connection all the time.

A lot of people on Twitter claimed that we wouldn’t have any difficulty finding candidates for parliament, even if the pay was much lower. That’s true – though the same would also be true of, say, surgeons or pilots if we weren’t bothered about the quality of applicants.

The best argument I encountered against higher pay for MPs is the claim that it’s not the main issue: the pool of talent is restricted not by money, but by other structural problems. First, the demands of the job which, if it is to be done well, require both an intense amount of constituency work and being on top of multiple distinct and complex policy areas. Secondly, there is the process of selection by an unrepresentative, and often eccentric local party membership. And thirdly there is the requirement to display unwavering loyalty to your party if you have ministerial aspirations.

I still think it’s worth increasing MPs’ pay; we have plenty of evidence (as well as the dictates of common sense) to suggest that increasing salaries makes jobs more attractive. It is true, though, that such a pay hike wouldn’t be a silver bullet, solving all the fundamental problems that are presently undermining parliament. We need a broader conversation about what we expect from MPs and how they can be resourced to do the job properly.

For a start, the constituency role of today’s MPs is entirely undefined and barely supported – which is something that has deterred many of my friends who have initially considered standing (for all parties). Doing the job well, especially in low income areas, requires the member to be a spectacular multi-tasker: a social worker; an immigration lawyer and a GP.

To help with this, MPs are given an expenses account that allows for a couple of low paid staff, often straight out of university. As hardworking as these people often are, it is ridiculous to have such underpowered teams trying to resolve what can seem like an endless series of heartbreaking and often complex personal crises. 

It would be much more preferable to have expenses limited to travel and subsistence – and a separate, much larger, budget for an expert constituency team with legal and policy experience. Funding could be indexed to deprivation to acknowledge the greater range of challenges in some constituencies. Of course, MPs would still need to be directly involved in the work of each unit, so as to deploy their status and lobbying power to help constituents. But a professionalisation of constituency work would make this element of the role less daunting and more manageable.

The relationship between MP and party is much harder to fix. Party membership on the Conservative side has collapsed over the past few decades, badly weakening the selection process in many parts of the country – while constituency Labour parties, while often growing in size, have also become more narrowly ideological and left wing. 

Central parties’ attempts to take more control over the process have often led to a local backlash – and, even such intervention is effective, it generally involves the parachuting in of party loyalists rather than the independent thinkers that the Commons badly needs. The Tories’ brief flirtation with open primaries – asking all voters in a constituency to choose their candidate – found that this process did lead to more independently minded MPs in government. However, the party decided this was not the outcome it was after.

At a minimum we should consider state funding for aspirant candidates from under-served demographics; looking at gender and ethnicity, but also family background and income. This would at least make it easier for a wider range of people to put themselves forward. We could also make parliament a more attractive place to work, further reforming its anti-social hours of work, providing sufficient decent offices, and introducing electronic voting to maximise flexibility.

A more radical solution would be to move to large constituencies (either with fewer MPs overall, or multi-member seats) so as to reduce the risk that local “selectorates” will be dominated by a small number of ideologues. In this respect, the metro mayor experiment has been encouraging: generally speaking mayoral candidates seem to be of a more consistent quality.

Let’s say that, with a combination of better pay, improved selection processes, and professional support with the constituency role, you could improve the quality of MPs. The remaining problem – a big one – would be the question of independence.

Most MPs, especially younger and newer ones, want to become ministers. Government jobs come with more power, more money, higher status and greater post-MP earning potential. This makes rebelling against the party whip very politically dangerous unless you know that your ministerial life is over already, or your chance of promotion is already shot. And – of course – those already in ministerial or shadow ministerial posts cannot rebel without losing their jobs.

This is why 250 Tory MPs trudged through the lobbies to vote for Paterson’s suspension to be overturned – even though the vast majority knew it was wrong. But voting for terrible laws, or to overturn a colleague’s suspension, remains a choice. The fact that refusing to do so bears a political cost does not, in itself, provide absolution. All the same: it is manifestly stupid to structure a legislature in such a way that doing the right thing comes at such a high price.

In an ideal world the executive would be separate from the legislature. While the “separation of powers” wouldn’t cut the ties of party loyalty, it would reduce the personal implications of voting against the wishes of your leader (because lawmakers would not be in line for government posts). 

A fundamental change of this sort would also allow the prime minister to choose a government from a much wider pool of relevant talent (bear in mind, for instance, that fewer than 20 per cent of MPs have a STEM degree). 

As part of this grand reform, there would have to beconcomitant changes to increase the power of parliament – including, say, the right to bring forward its own legislation – so as not to make the position of MP, no longer a direct path to ministerial office, unattractive to ambitious politicians.

There is, as you might imagine, no chance of this happening in the foreseeable future. Dominic Cummings put forward a plan to do something along these lines – but Boris Johnson refused even to entertain the idea of losing so much patronage and control over MPs. In all honesty, it’s hard to envisage any but the most enlightened PM reacting differently to such a proposal.

Yet there are reforms that would mark steps in the right direction. For instance: select committees could be given more powers to scrutinise and block government appointments, sign off secondary legislation, and vet spending decisions that are currently outside the purview of parliament. It also comes back to salary – if MPs were paid at the same level as ministers, they would have a smaller incentive to back their parties rather than follow their consciences.

Of course, there may well be better proposals than these – but if we do nothing, we can expect nothing to change. While the triggers for parliamentary failure are often personal, as in the Paterson case the real problem is structural. 

We pay MPs less than a senior manager at a local council; allocate minimal resources to support constituencies full of people with profound needs; give them huge personal incentives to follow the whip obediently; and then expect them to act with compassion, courage and integrity at all times. If we want a parliament fit for the modern world then we have to build one.

Sam Freedman is a senior fellow at Institute for Government and a former senior adviser to the Department for Education.

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