Nice work if you can get elected to it
Published by The Independent (19th May, 2014)
Wouldn’t it be lovely to be in a job where, as the sun comes out and the garden starts to bloom, you can give yourself an extra week’s paid holiday? Especially when you are already putting in fewer weeks than primary school pupils – and yet spend much of your time talking about hard-working families, bickering over benefit scroungers and bemoaning the nation’s woeful productivity.
This is the fortunate position for our elected representatives in Parliament, who have just begun a 19-day holiday. Mind you, the poor dears must have been exhausted – it was more than a fortnight since their 18-day Easter break. And they have to prepare for a seven-week stint before their six weeks of summer holiday, which is followed by another month’s break for party conferences.
Nice work if you can get elected for it. MPs like to moan that they are overworked, underpaid and undervalued, yet the truth is more complex. For all their complaints, they are among the top three per cent of earners in the country, even without those controversial expenses and gold-plated pensions. Some are extremely smart, but others would struggle to earn similar packages in the private sector. For those that can put up with public opprobrium, it can be a pretty cushy job, especially if sitting on a comfortable majority.
One MP revealed that despite substantial constituency workloads, the overall burden was much less than admitted, even with long hours on the days Parliament was sitting. ‘There’s an enormous amount of spare time if you are reasonably efficient. There might be a vote at 7pm and another at 10pm, but so long as you are sitting around nearby, you have lots of time to do other things.’
How else could governing ministers carry out parliamentary duties while backbenchers put in those hours as barristers, company directors and doctors? Others churn out books or try to build television careers; Nadine Dorries even flew to the Australian jungle for a reality show, insisting it would not impede her political work. Incredibly, it is said Andrew Lansley, leader of the House of Commons, urged MPs recently to focus on voters, not second jobs.
You have to wonder at the wisdom of taking more time off – not least when there is such an anti-politics mood afoot that a misanthropic rabble like Ukip might top forthcoming European polls. This comes as the Coalition appears to have run out of steam; after the intense legislative onslaught of its first three years, it lacks fresh laws to pass and seems to be dissolving in front of our eyes. So the ‘Zombie Parliament’ shut up shop for an extra week; perhaps fixed-terms were not such a good idea.
Last year, the House of Commons sat for 145 days – which meant most school pupils sat at their desks eight weeks longer than our political masters parked on their Westminster benches. In previous years, the chamber has been in action almost 100 days more. And even when Parliament is in action, MPs can slip away early. One told me colleagues often said “have a good weekend” as they left on Wednesday night.
Most insist they are rarely off duty even in recess, wading through constituency work and attending local events. When Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb told listeners that the House of Commons was on holiday a couple of years ago, he was besieged with angry tweets from MPs saying they were holding surgeries, visiting schools and meeting lobby groups. ‘My ‘holiday’ 2day consists of going through about 100 constituents’ letters & planning local jobs fair,’ was a typical response, from Tamworth’s Christopher Pincher.
But as another of the 2010 intake said, however hard they work, it is wrong that Parliament fails to sit for so much of the year – even if only on grounds of shoring up credibility. This year, it is likely to be in business for about 142 days, which means MPs can spend an astonishing 223 days away from Westminster. Clearly they did not listen to Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, when she warned this was causing a growing “democratic vacuum” by giving an impression they were lazy, rarely working and poor value for money.
No one wants politicians passing laws just for the sake of appearances; they do plenty of damage like that already. But there is more they could do to scrutinise Whitehall waste, improve existing legislation, examine European edicts and encourage real political debate; most MPs, after all, feel restrained by party politics. Why, for example, could select committees not carry out investigations more often when Parliament is not sitting? I am sure the public could live with MPs going on fewer foreign junkets, after all – and many of them would like the extra responsibility.
Perhaps our Westminster politicians should ponder these points as they sit on their sun loungers this week, wondering why they are so unpopular while absurd fringe parties are on the rise.