By Scott Simmonds, researcher
After the fallout of the Owen Patterson case, MPs' second jobs have become a topic of heated debate, with the idea of some MPs topping up their already generous salary causing outrage.
Of course, few would disagree with the principle of MPs having ‘real world’ experience outside of Westminster. For example, MPs with experience in manual work has fallen from 15.8 per cent in 1979 to 3 per cent in 2015, while at the same time MPs who’ve only worked as political organisers or professional politicians has risen from 3.4 per cent to 17.1 per cent in the same period. With the number of MPs whose only work-life experience is in politics already on the rise, the outright banning of second jobs might sever any experience MPs have in the wider economy.
This year, with recesses taken into account, the House of Commons will only sit for 170 days – less than half the year. Who would dismiss an MP using the remaining time to help part-time as an NHS nurse or represent constituents as a solicitor? Perhaps the current outrage is more to do with what types of jobs MPs do rather than the principle of MPs holding another profession. Some are calling for a ban, with politicians only allowed to do the jobs approved by other MPs. But how can they be expected to know what jobs are worthwhile? You can be damn sure they’d approve of part time journalists, but turn their noses up at tech entrepreneurs or anyone in the beauty industry.
The only fit and proper people to judge these matters impartially are voters. So what can voters do if they feel they’re not being properly represented? One remedy put forward to hold MPs to account is the ability to recall MPs – allowing the electorate to remove an MP through a referendum. While this is currently in place, MPs up for recall have to meet certain criteria, such as a parliamentary committee deciding that they should be suspended for more than 10 days. In this system, only MPs or a court can decide if an MP is recalled, and constituents aren’t able to initiate the process. This should be changed. Voters should be able to choose when an MP has acted inappropriately and be able to remove them before the end of their term. Countries like the US, where constituents have the ability to recall, show that this power is used sparingly - but it is used, and in most cases there’s little to nothing that other politicians can do to stop or block it.
When the current legislation was being introduced in 2014, Zac Goldsmith tabled an amendment, supported by the TPA, calling for this. Unfortunately it was overruled, leaving us with the Owen Patterson situation: MPs marking their own homework.
A missed opportunity, but one that should not be forgotten. Recall open to all voters should be introduced, perhaps with a high threshold of 30 per cent to help focus minds on only serious breaches, or under the original Goldsmith proposals of an ‘intent to recall’ notice being required first. A system like this would mean recent issues, such as which jobs MPs have outside of parliament, would be a matter for constituents if they wanted it to be - with local electors as the judge, jury and executioner.
The danger of recent scandals is we end up with the worst of both worlds: a political class with second jobs approved by other politicians, with local voters unable to have a say. What we need instead is a real right to recall.
So please sign our petition here to give voters the right to recall their MP for any reason - not just when parliament gives permission.