This morning's Times (£) reported that David Cameron, John Bercow and Andrew Lansley have "paved the way for new rules governing the heads of select committees" in the wake of the Yeo controversy. The paper also claimed that Select Committee chairmen themselves want changes, naming Keith Vaz, the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and David Davies, the Conservative Chairman of the Welsh Affairs committee. It also quoted Richard Ottoway, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as saying that an outright ban on outside interests “would diminish debate” and John Whittingdale, the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, as saying that MPs having outside interests “strengthens Parliament”.
Cameron and Bercow and Lansley and Vaz and Davies and Ottoway and Whittingdale are all right. MPs should be citizen legislators, who almost by definition have outside interests, rather than professional politicians, who (almost by definition) don't, and this applies to Select Committee Chairmen no less than other MPs. But since those Chairmen now take a special salary, like members of the Executive, it follows that they should be treated like them - in broad terms, anyway, especially since most Select Committee Chairman have acquired a new legitimacy by being elected. There should be a bar on conflicting interests, not an outright ban - as Isabel Hardman and I have both argued.
I ask the question simply because I argued yesterday morning that they should be barred from having such interests - at least, if they clash with their role as Chairmen - and have yet to hear a good reason why they shouldn't be so banned.
Can anyone offer one?
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.
In an attempt to learn from what James Surowiecki calls "The Wisdom of Crowds", I asked yesterday on Twitter what difference a statutory register of lobbyists would have made to the Patrick Mercer case. The best answer I got was, first, that Mercer would have checked the register and, second, would have found the Panorama/Daily Telegraph operation wasn't on it - after which he presumably would not have been drawn into the sting. So the main difference a register would have made, according to my interlocutors, was to protect MPs against investigative journalists - not necessarily a very happy outcome.
However, it is possible that it wouldn't have made any difference at all, and certain that it would not do so in the case of an MP determined to breach the rules and the law. An MP who is prepared to defy both today in a quest for money is unlikely to be deterred by both tomorrow in the form of a statutory register. (Mercer was in breach of rules on paid advocacy, and faces a possible police investigation under the Bribery Act.) Furthermore, the wits of the regulators are unlikely to be more sharp than those of investigative journalists. As Mark Wallace pointed out, the latter could set up a front company in say, Switzerland - and get on the register that way.
My mother's father and brother were both professional soldiers. My grandfather survived the First World War more or less unscathed, but my uncle was not so fortunate during the second: he lost the use of a leg, and the partial use of an arm, at Anzio. Then again, fortune is as fortune does, since a German bullet struck a cigarette case lodged in his breast pocket. So if you were fanciful, you might say that smoking saved his life. I don't know what the proportion of Jews serving as professional soldiers was then or is now, but suspect that it's unusual to have two in the family.
I mention this because the regiment that my uncle served in was the Sherwood Foresters. So did Patrick Mercer's father - and he himself was commissioned into the regiment, or rather into the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, as it had by then become. Mercer is very knowledgable about the history of the regiment, and was able to tell me, when we were Conservative MPs together, more or less exactly where my uncle was wounded during the battle. He said that there were then a small number of Jewish officers in the regiment who were regarded by their fellow officers with respect and affection.
I defend neither Mercer's misconduct nor him referring to an Israeli soldier as a "bloody Jew" (which is re-heating the "black bastards" controversy, needless to say). It's evident that the latter was his idea of a joke. Others will rightly make the point that it was not an amusing one and that anti-semitism is completely unacceptable. But I think it worth writing as I have to explain why I don't believe that one appalling remark proves that Mercer is an anti-semite. He used to say that one day we should travel to Anzio, and he would show me the spot where my uncle was wounded. I expect the visit will never take place, and am sad at the thought.
It would certainly be wrong for minorities in constituencies to be able to hold majorities to ransom. But the key to avoiding this is to get the mechanism for recall right: the correct trigger for a petition, plus voters' hatred of by-elections, ought to be enough to see off unrepresentative challenges. The Government's draft bill on the right of recall proposed two different means. First, the MP in question should have been found by the courts "to have engaged in serious wrongdoing", in which case a petition signed by ten per cent of voters in his or her seat could trigger recall or, second, MPs themselves could vote for a recall petition to be opened in a particular case.
By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
In my sole venture into school drama, I played Arthur, "a very junior Home Official official", in Tom Stoppard's New Found Land. I might otherwise have been cast as an Parliamentarian in the two-part play between which it is sandwiched, his Dirty Linen: indeed, the play boasts no fewer than seven male MPs. I was perhaps ineligible to play the part of the eighth, Mrs Ebury - and also to star as the central figure in the play, Maddie, the Secretary to a Select Committee, who first appears on stage wearing "a low cut, sleeveless blouse, buttoned insecurely down the front; a wrap-around skirt, quite short; underneath, suspenders, not tights, and a waist-slip which is also pretty, silk and lace, with a slit...the knickers ought to be remembered for their colour - perhaps white silk with red lace trimmings."
The plot turns around the dalliance of Miss GoToBed - to use Maddie's surname - with all eight MPs (yes, including Mrs Ebury). So what would happen in a Dirty Linen for our times? Maddie would surely refuse to yield to the MPs' advances, find her way to Kathy Newman of Channel 4 News, and tell her tale as part of an investigative special. My point is not that the 1970s were better or worse than today (Dirty Linen was first performed in 1976) than that attitudes towards Parliament and sex have changed almost out of recognition - the second, arguably, even more than the first. And the places in which changes to those attitudes are most pervasive are institutions or businesses which have at least one thing in common with Parliament: size.
By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter
There’s a small item in today’s Sun that ought to make big waves. It concerns the subsidised food and drink in Parliament, and how certain politicians are working to block price rises. Apparently, MPs are insisting that the costs remain frozen, for reasons including that, “breakfast in the Commons would cost more than ‘nearby commercial venues’”. That means fillets of sea bass for £3.50 and glasses of white wine for £2.35 from here on in, all funded by the taxpayer to the tune of £6 million a year. Take that, commercial venues.
Stacked against a debt burden of £1.4 trillion, that £6 million may not add up to much – but, symbolically, it’s important. Not only is it an affront to the unsubsidised general public, at a time when supermarket prices are rising and wages stagnating, but it’s also a reminder of the pocket-lining tendencies that contributed to the expenses scandal. After Chris Huhne’s resignation, you’d think politicians would be especially alive to that little ideal called ‘trust’. Sadly, not all of them are.
By Harry Phibbs
Follow Harry on Twitter
The defeat of boundary reform this afternoon, by 334 votes to 292, is not only bad for the Conservative Party but also for democracy.
The average annual cost to the taxpayer of a Member of Parliament is £590,000 a year (a peer costs us £130,000 on average while a Euro MP comes in at 1.79 million a time.) Of course it could be argued that reducing the cost of politics by reducing the number of MPs by 50 and saving a few million a year is modest set against state spending £700 billion. You could say the same about that element of our bill which covers MPs expenses. Yet it still matters. There is a question of MPs setting an example when the size of the rest of the public sector workforce is being cut.
There is also the matter of democracy. That constituencies should have equal number of votes so that votes have equal value.
The arrangement where the Conservatives have to secure a 7% lead over the Labour Party in votes to have an equal number of seats is unfair. If the Labour Party get more MPs but fewer votes than the Conservatives at the next election which party would the Lib Dems regard as having greater democracy legitimacy?
What would the country make of it if Labour won an overall majority in the House of Commons while securing fewer votes than the Conservatives?
By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
The claim that disclosing the addresses of places where MPs live "for a moment...seems merely comic. It conjures up visions of Al Qaeda terrorists trailing LibDem backbenchers home or crazed women stalking handsome Tory junior Ministers they accuse of having done them wrong. Come off it. No-one could recognise 51 MPs in an identity parade, let alone take the trouble to rough them up for voting the wrong way in the last Commons division." - Max Hastings, Daily Mail, November 21 2012.
"A 21 year old student has been jailed for life at the Old Bailey for trying to murder Labour MP Stephen Timms because he voted for the war in Iraq." BBC, November 3 2010.