Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020Health.
The final episode of Michael Cockerill’s Inside the Commons documentary aired earlier this week after the news emerged of Sir Malcom Rifkind’s resignation from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament – and that he is also to retire as an MP.
Whilst a handful of people that afternoon will have started fighting like ferrets in a sack to be considered for selection in his safe Conservative seat of Kensington, many will have felt very sad that both Sir Michael and Jack Straw’s careers have ended this way. Both have made significant contributions during their time of public service. But the reason that both their careers are now over and their reputations tarnished is that, once again, politicians have been perceived to be insiders, out of touch and up for sale.
Cockerill’s programme focused on ‘Reinventing the House’, and the problem that MPs still face of being seen as entitled, pompous, greedy and disconnected from the majority’s reality. Apart from following the progress of Zac Goldsmith’s Recall Bill, and the more esoteric business of how to replace the Commons Clerk and the roof, there wasn’t actually much substance about how politics can be reinvented and, by inference, redeemed.
Redemption is no easy journey. It requires a significant debt to be paid to regain the opportunity to be trusted once more. There is no single solution, but recent events surely demonstrate one vital ingredient: MPs should only have one paid job – that of being an MP.
This would recognises the role as being full-time. It would prevent accusations of conflict of interest whilst in public office. It would show the commitment of the individual, who needs to come to Parliament with established knowledge and experience, to contribute purely to public service.
And if MPs are promoted to hold other parliamentary positions then, like other professionals, they should paid more to recognise the increased workload and responsibility, not because they weren’t previously in full-time employ. Those who want to take on directorships, hit the speech circuit and consult, should do so when they stand down.
This may mean a higher turnover of MPs, who take on the role for a shorter period of time – but this can be argued to be more democratic. It may also mean more mature entrants who have come to the end of their first career, and who don’t see Parliament as a stepping stone. It would also require another review of how MPs are paid, not least because the cost of living in London, which they all have to do at least part-time, has increased out-of-proportion with the rest of the country.
Some say it would be inconsistent not to apply the same rule to the Lords, but they don’t have the same ‘contract’ with the public, and it would be superficial not to review the role of their House in its entirety.
Questions that now need to be answered include: do we want attempt this redemption, how badly do MPs want to restore trust, and do we still consider the role of an MP one that should be esteemed? Change won’t happen without determined review and action, and public engagement will be a crucial part of the process. All the evidence show discontents with the establishment, so surely now is the time for some radical reinventing of the Commons, starting with the job description?