The House of Commons is once again embroiled in a pay issue involving MPs. And, once again, a lobbying scandal has sparked debate over whether second occupations should be outright banned once and for all. The latest debate is sparked in the wake of the actions of Owen Paterson. The Tory frontbencher was found to have committed ‘egregious‘ parliamentary breaches and stepped down last week after a botched attempt by Boris Johnson’s government to overturn his punishment.
Paterson’s extracurricular activities included two consulting jobs that paid him £100,000 per year in addition to his MP salary. He was found guilty of paid advocacy, indicating that he used his position to promote the interests of his paymasters. Even his most ardent defenders acknowledge that he sought meetings with ministers and government agencies about concerns related to his outside employment but argue that the investigation process was flawed.
In some ways, the checks and balances were effective. Johnson’s attempt to dismantle the entire standards system in order to save Paterson failed, and he was vindicated by the court of public and parliamentary opinion. However, the more voters learn about MPs’ side jobs, the louder the call for reform becomes. Consider the outrage directed at Sir Geoffrey Cox, who made nearly £1m last year from legal services performed primarily in the British Virgin Islands. Since being fired as Attorney General in 2020, he has only spoken in one parliamentary discussion.
Isabel Hardman, author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, argues that there is a disparity in the two classes of MPs that she views exist: ‘Those in comfortable safe seats who have spare time for second jobs, versus those who represent marginals, spend their lives on the stump and incur much greater costs’. Many of these second jobs, she says, ‘are well-paid directorships helping companies navigate parliament’.
There is currently no cap on how much MPs can earn on top of their Parliamentary salary – which starts at £81,932, excluding expenses and other perks. The average annual expenses for an MP is £157,747 which includes staffing costs, as well as transport, accommodation and food. MPs must publicly declare any additional income, along with gifts, donations and shareholdings over 15%.
The extent of the problem and the sheer amount of external payments MPs are receiving is undoubtedly cause for concern. The top 10 highest earners (excluding salary and expenses) are as follows;
1. Theresa May – Conservative – £1.6m
Includes payment from the elite Washington Speakers Bureau, and now earns 10 times as much per year from speaking engagements as she does as a backbencher.
2. Sir Geoffrey Cox – Conservative – £1m
Continues to work as a barrister, making more than £1m since leaving the Cabinet and resuming legal work in February 2020.
3. Sir John Redwood – Conservative – £436,000
The majority of the Wokingham MP’s earnings came from his position as chairman of Charles Stanley’s investment committee, which has paid him £15,606 per month since the last election. On occasion, the company will give him a bonus. Despite his riches, he once charged £112 to the taxpayer to reseed the lawn at his Berkshire constituency residence.
4. Fiona Bruce – Conservative – £400,000
Has continued to work as a lawyer since her election in 2010.
5. Andrew Mitchell – Conservative – £335,000
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell makes a tidy sum from private investment companies while representing Sutton Coldfield in parliament. This includes SouthBridge, an African investment bank based which pays him £39,600 a year for just nine days’ work.
6. Sajid Javid – Conservative – £276,000
In August last year, he began a £150,000 a year role with bank JP Morgan but quit once he replaced Matt Hancock as Health Secretary.
7. Richard Fuller – Conservative – £250,000
Continue as an advisory director of software company Impero Solutions, where he previously served as chief executive, receiving £20,000 a year for just two hours work a month.
8. Owen Patterson – Conservative – £208,000
The aforementioned Patterson made his money as a consultant to Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods, netting him north of £100,000 a year on top of his backbench salary.
9. Sir John Hayes – Conservative – £202,000
Has a lucrative contract as an advisor to oil company BB Energy paying £50,000 a year. He also delivers lectures on political studies.
10. Nadine Dorries – Conservative – £157,000
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries makes her money writing books on the side – and has sold over 2.5 million to date.
You may notice a pattern here. Only three Labour MPs, compared to 90 Conservatives, have second employment in consultancy or as directors. However, even the leader of the opposition is guilty. According to the Commons register of interests, Labour leader Keir Starmer has earned money from legal services in addition to his role as an MP. Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions and barrister, was paid around £26,000 for work done while he was a Member of Parliament, but before he became Labour leader in 2020.
Therefore, while the vast majority of offenders are members of the Conservative Party, these cases show that it is a problem across the aisle, and that it is indicative of a wider systemic problem. Rather, it exemplifies a political culture that exists in Britain where being an MP and public servant can be interpreted as a side-job to other potentially conflicting ventures and interests.
Having MPs with second professions has previously been seen as a good thing. In 1995, the standards committee said that not having them would not serve the best interests of democracy. It argued that Parliament needed ‘a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise’.
On Monday 8th November, Starmer called on Boris Johnson to ‘ban paid directorships and consultancy roles’ for MPs. However, the party claimed its stance was broader, favouring prohibiting secondary employment unless there were specific exceptions. This would, for example, allow MPs to continue to work as doctors, nurses, or social workers on the side, or write a book, but not undertake consulting or legal work.
The discussion raises a more fundamental question about what it means to be a member of Parliament. Is representing voters on top of a day job still considered part-time public service? Is it a full-time job to be a legislator, a social worker, and a community advocate? If the latter is the case, it may be time to recognise that the UK now has a professional political class, curtailing most outside interests. Many view a solution to lie in appropriately raising MP wages, which currently lag behind comparable professions like solicitors.
However, this is not a popular opinion with the voting public. If MPs are to plead poverty on their lavish salary, it can imply an attitude of ‘unfortunately, I am going to have to be paid more than £82,000 per year, or I’ll have no choice but to be corrupt’. It is another instance to be added to a long list of reasons the public views MPs as being out of touch with reality. Those working full-time hours on the National Minimum Wage to feed their family currently pocket a measly £15,973 per year. How can MPs explain to them that their salary is more than adequate but their £82k is not enough?
Perhaps the only solution is to emphasise that being an MP is a public service, an honour and a responsibility. It is not a high-paying job that requires adequate compensation, or worse, a secondary occupation. But we must do more than just say it: to truly end corruption and vested interests, immediate reform is undoubtedly necessary. That much is clear in the damning list of the Top 10 extra-curricular earners. To do so means a ban on second jobs – with the exception of true public services like healthcare or teaching – and severely restricting the revolving door and lobbying activities of former members of parliament. Indeed, such a change could make serving as an MP the act of public service it always should have been.
About the author: Chris Thomson is a political researcher and writer, specialising in political communication, online misinformation and the role of social media in contemporary democratic processes.