Members of Parliament are elected to represent the people of their constituencies, but the debate as to whether they should be able to take external jobs whilst holding their seat has come to the forefront of attention in recent weeks. Former Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were secretly filmed offering their services for thousands of pounds to a fake Chinese firm established by Channel 4 in this secret exposing ploy.
It is alleged that Jack Straw used his position to influence changes to EU law on behalf of a firm that paid him £60,000 a year. There was no need to send James Bond in; when the undercover Channel 4 posed as the fake staff of a Chinese firm, Straw was recorded offering a rate of £5,000 a day for any speeches that he may perform. Given Mr Straw’s reputation is not held to a very high standard by many following his involvement in the Iraq war, one would think maybe he would like to keep his head down a little. The other culprit, Rifkind, is reported to have offered the arrangement of access to every British Ambassador in exchange for payment – hence the tagline emerging in the news “access for cash”.
Rifkind commented – “I am self-employed, so nobody pays me a salary. I have to earn my income”. Well, this is not entirely true Mr Rifkind. MPs earn around £60,000 a year, which happens to be funded by the taxpayers – it might also be useful to note that this is over double the national average wage. Therefore, your comments that it is unreasonable to expect an MP to limit themselves to this salary throughout their serving time seem slightly fallacious and inexcusable.
So, what are the rules? MPs are forbidden from taking payment to perform speeches in the House. However, there are no rules banning MPs from performing external consultancy and advisory work; so long as any earnings are declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This is justified within Parliament as enabling MPs a broader range of experience and expertise.
Labour leader, Ed Miliband, believes that banning second jobs would increase public trust in politicians. It might be too little too late, Ed. Year after year, more news emerges of both proven and potential MP wrongdoings – following the expenses scandal, altered reasoning for wars, sex abuse scandals and now the potential lining of their own pockets in conflict with their primary role. There is a real dispiritedness within the country that we are not represented by those elected, and these disputes go a long way to support such distrust and as Miliband describes it, “Parliamentary suspicion”.
This potential corruption is insidious, and if true, can be seen as a serious inefficiency of our system. Given the positions that these politicians hold – Rifkind chaired the Intelligence and Security Committee (although he recently stepped down over this event), there can be influence that is detrimental to public good, but comes with the injection of cash into their bank accounts. The distinction is always thin – outside consultancy work does have its benefits for the House, but as with everything, there is potential for it to be abused; trading favours and influence for money, rather than acting in the best interest of the people.
Both the MPs currently under scrutiny in the headlights have responded strongly, stating that they have not broken any of the rules governing MPs’ outside interests. This brings to light perhaps a more worrying deliberation – the fact that it is not illegal potentially highlights an overarching systemic problem. The temptation of rich endorsement from outside contracts placing the possibility of conflicting duties strikes at the very heart of parliamentary democracy which is the sacrosanct foundation within the UK. If there are elements apparent which can provide conflict for those who are elected to represent, the system should rigorously scrutinise the worth of having these opportunities present.
By Dre Efthymiou