There are two conflicting ideas of what MPs should be. The first is that they should be citizen legislators, who are thus free to earn and work outside the Commons. The second is that they should be professional politicians, who are not – and are thus dependent on the taxpayer. I believe that to choose the second model is to create a discredited political class: indeed, I left the Commons largely because it made such a choice in response to the expenses scandal (though, for the record, I scarcely had any outside interests worth registering). In short, I not only believe that MPs must be allowed outside interests, but that they should have such interests.
None the less, the lesson of the Yeo affair is that those who chair Select Committees should be barred from having any outside interest that can reasonably be seen to conflict with their role as Chairmen. The logic of a ban is as follows. There is one class of MPs who are, quite properly, not allowed to have outside interests – namely, Ministers. This is because to be a Minister, unlike being an MP, is unambiguously to do a job. Furthermore, it is one which must be protected from conflicts of interest. Not so long ago, Select Committee Chairmen were unpaid and unelected. Like the members of the committees they chaired, they were appointed by the whips.
There has always been a case for barring those Chairmen, because of the power they command, from having outside interests that clash with their role – in other words, for making them an exception that proves the rule as far as legislators having outside interests is concerned. The Yeo row is a reminder that Select Committee Chairman are now paid by the taxpayer and, in most cases, elected by their fellow MPs. They thus have a legitimacy they didn't have previously, and are receiving taxpayers' money to help fund their role: all in all, they are now doing a job. The case for banning conflicting outside interests has now become overwhelming.
To say so is not to take a view on the Yeo case one way or the other. It is simply to recognise the way in which the Parliamentary world has changed, and ought to change still further. The question of whether Select Committee Chairmen should be allowed to have outside interests that might be seen to conflict with their role is winding its leisurely way through Parliament. The Speaker has mulled it. The Standards and Priveleges Committee is considering it. There should be no further delay. A ban should be introduced as soon as possible – and it should apply to Tim Yeo no more or less than to anyone else.