What a job’s worth, by Jackie Ashley

6 Nov 09
JACKIE ASHLEY | The Kelly report has proposed controversial reforms to expenses, but we are no nearer knowing whether MPs are actually doing their jobs properly

The Kelly report has proposed controversial reforms to expenses, but we are no nearer knowing whether MPs are actually doing their jobs properly

With the publication of Sir Christopher  Kelly’s report comes much grumbling from MPs: only very young singletons or those with a private income will come into Parliament now, they say.

Well, certainly, an MP’s life will be a bit tougher than it was, but I predict there will be no shortage of those wanting to take on the job.

But there is another issue that Kelly didn’t look into, and this is, in its own way, just as much of a scandal as expenses fiddling: what MPs do all day to earn their salaries.

Take two fictional examples: Joe Brown and Mike Smith. Joe Brown rises at 6.30am every morning, listens to the Today programme, checks the press, heads into Westminster, where he sits on two committees, attends debates in the chamber, chips in at Prime Minister’s Questions and is writing two policy papers. At the weekend, he works tirelessly in his constituency.

Mike Smith has a much easier time. He earns a tidy sum practising at the bar in the morning, never misses a good lunch and strolls into Westminster in the afternoon. There, he might take a little nap before heading off to an evening engagement, which, annoyingly, might have to be interrupted by a vote in the Commons. Both types of MPs exist – and they are paid exactly the same amount of money.

Of course, there is no formal job description for an MP, and nor should there be. The job is very much what an individual MP chooses to make it. Some become overpaid local councillors. Others are rarely seen in the constituency but spend their time on policy, working hard on committees, in debates and at conferences. Then there are the full-time careerists, who spend their time in the TV studios or oiling up to the powerful, in the hope of gaining promotion.

The problem is that we have no way of judging an MP’s effectiveness. The internet has spawned various sites, such as the useful theyworkforyou.com, which detail exactly how many debates an MP has contributed to; how many questions asked and so on. So we regularly hear about ‘the most active’ and ‘the laziest three’ MPs by comparing their Commons appearances.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Ministers might not appear much in such lists, but that doesn’t mean that they are not putting in 18-hour days. MPs with far-flung constituencies might not spend as much time at Westminster as they would like simply because of the time taken travelling. And an MP could be working tirelessly in his constituency, but not appearing much at Westminster.

One London MP told me recently that she had more than 300 constituency cases in a week, some of them literally life or death situations, involving immigration and deportation.

In the end, it is for the public to judge whether or not they believe their MP works hard or is good value for money. That judgement shouldn’t rest solely on how many times the MP gets him or herself on to Question Time. But nor should it just be a question of his or her ability to deal with local council issues.

My father, a Labour MP for 25 years until he stood down a decade ago, once received a furious complaint from a constituent, angry about a bus stop being positioned outside his house. ‘A bloody fine MP you are,’ he fumed, ‘if you can’t even get a bus stop moved.’ Of course, the siting of the bus stop was a matter for the council, and the bus stop had to be outside someone’s house, but my father doubtless lost one vote there.

The best MPs, surely, are the ones who are active in their constituency, helping out when they can, but delegating to local councillors when they should. The best use knowledge they gain at local level to inform their contributions to policy debates and hold the executive to account.

We need to know that MPs are doing their jobs properly and sadly, for all the reforms announced in the Kelly report on expenses, we are no nearer to that. It might not be easy to design, but we do now need some way of measuring MPs’ performance.

Jackie Ashley is a Guardian columnist and political interviewer

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