Standard procedure: MPs and second jobs
George Osborne’s decision to take up a role as editor of the Evening Standard has sparked a fresh debate about MPs holding second jobs. Sebastian Whale reports on the fallout from the former chancellor’s controversial appointment
George Osborne’s penchant for pulling rabbits out of hats has shown no sign of abating since being sacked by Theresa May last July. Relinquished of a role in frontline politics the former chancellor has pursued career interests beyond those residing in Westminster and his Tatton constituency. While his initial appointments raised eyebrows, last Friday jaws dropped to the floor, dislocating in disbelief as he was spectacularly unveiled as the London Evening Standard’s new editor. Osborne had been pushing the boundaries of what is deemed appropriate for MPs to pursue in extra parliamentary activities, but with his latest move, has he gone too far?
There are many aspects to the announcement that have prompted concerns over conflict of interests and the relationship between MPs and journalists, alongside a healthy dose of political intrigue. But it has also led to fresh calls for a review of the rules surrounding MPs’ second jobs. Should our elected representatives be carrying out work elsewhere while serving in Parliament? Or would changing the rules see talented individuals – doctors, surgeons, lawyers – stay away from politics? And is parliamentary debate enhanced by our MPs’ outside experiences?
More than 270 MPs have declared employment or outside earnings on top of their £75,000 salaries in the register of members’ interests since 2015. But these declarations range from one-off payments received for taking part in surveys, TV appearances and newspaper columns, through to consultancy work and other more time consuming jobs and professions. The debate on second jobs most recently surfaced in 2015, after a newspaper sting involving Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Labour minister Jack Straw and a bogus Chinese company. Both were cleared of wrongdoing.
The SNP’s Cabinet Office spokesman Tommy Sheppard has long called for the rules on MPs’ external employment to be overhauled. Sheppard, a member of the Commons Standards Committee which is carrying out a review into the regulations, believes MPs should not be allowed to take outside work that takes up more than 20 hours a week. When he first entered parliament in 2015, Sheppard was pushing for MPs to only be on Ipsa’s pay roll unless in exceptional circumstances. However his experiences have led him to a compromise. “I’ve come to the realisation that I’m never going to get that through. MPs are going to have second jobs so it’s much better to try and regulate them both by conflict of interest, and also regulate them by extent,” he says.
Sheppard believes being an MP should be considered a “sabbatical” position where you carry out public service at the “pleasure of the electorate”, but not where you are “disadvantaged because of having done it”. “So if for example you are a surgeon or you are doing a job which requires you to maintain professional credentials or certification then you should be allowed to do that,” he adds. “That should be a positive exemption to what I’m saying about second jobs.”
The SNP’s health spokesperson Dr Phillipa Whitford, a specialist breast cancer surgeon, is one such exemption. Dr Whitford says she has, until now, restricted any outside work to the recess periods, but last year was unable to do “as much as is ideal to maintain my surgical skills”. She has also been involved in teaching workshops in Palestine sharing her knowledge on how to improve health care.
If the Central Ayrshire MP does not carry out this work, then “it would be likely that I would fail my annual appraisal and lose my license”, she says. But Dr Whitford says that given the recent furore surrounding Osborne, there could be limits on outside work regarding the “number of additional jobs, time commitments and consideration of impact on MPs’ duties”.
So is she concerned that Osborne’s new job could affect her? “I think it may lead to a review but think it would still be unlikely that the possibility of any outside work would be shut down completely, and especially for those of us trying to maintain our professional licenses. It could be that the precise quantity of commitment might need to be sought,” she says. But privately some MPs are said to be concerned that Osborne’s latest move could precipitate a tightening of rules.
Sir Paul Beresford, Tory MP and another member of the Standards Committee, works part time as a dentist. Like Dr Whitford he says he needs to keep his skin in the game so he can keep up his continuing professional development. Beresford also chairs the Administration Committee and sits on other parliamentary bodies, and says he gets “very cross” when told he does not work as a full time MP. By running his dental practice, Beresford says it gives him an “an outside outlook on this job, it keeps my feet grounded because I’m trying to run a tiny business, people have better access to me and I can represent my profession” in Parliament.
As for the proposal for capping the amount of hours an MP can work outside the Commons, put forward by his Standards Committee colleague Sheppard, Beresford says it is “impractical”. “As one of the doctors said, if I’m busy working on a patient and there’s a sudden calamity, I’m not going to say ‘look I’ve done my 23 hours or whatever it is, you die while I just go back into the House of Commons’.”
He believes that outside experience in the Commons, from farmers through to lawyers, helps improve Parliamentary debate and is essential as Britain prepares to quit the European Union. “But underlying absolutely everything, and I’ve made absolutely sure that this applies to me and so to all the other MPs I know that have second jobs, and that is that your primary job, your main job, your full time job is being an MP,” he declares.
Since leaving Number 11 Osborne has earnt lucrative sums as a public speaker (more than £785,000 since September), become a part-time adviser to an asset management giant, and been appointed a fellow at the McCain institute. He also chairs the Northern Powerhouse partnership think tank. But a line appeared to be crossed as Lord Bew, chairman of the government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, expressed discomfort at his appointment to the Standard.
The watchdog, which advises the prime minister on ethical standards across the whole of public life, first reviewed the rules on outside work as part of the committee’s 2009 inquiry into MPs’ expenses. The committee decided at the time that MPs should remain free to undertake some paid outside work “provided it is within reasonable limits and there is transparency about the nature of the activity and the amount of time spent on it”.
Osborne is also yet to get sign off from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which approves jobs taken within two years of a minister leaving office. The group, which is part of the Cabinet Office, rebuked Osborne after he failed to seek the committee’s advice before announcing his chairmanship of the Northern Powerhouse think tank. A similar telling off is expected of his latest career move, after he notified ACOBA four days before going public, without approval. Labour has called for an inquiry.
On top of this, Osborne could face a separate probe from Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary commissioner on standards, as to whether he breached the codes of conduct required of ministers and MPs. Questions of potential conflicts of interest centre first on how Osborne can represent his constituents in Cheshire and edit the capital’s top paper. There are also concerns of how the Standard’s financial pages will report Blackrock; the city firm Osborne pockets a cool £650,000 a year from for the equivalent of one day a week’s work. Not to mention his membership of the Privy Council and meetings of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, all of which reflect Osborne’s unique access in the Commons, and issues surrounding press regulation and government advertising in the Standard.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the news a “joke” and called for Osborne to hold a by-election. Tom Watson meanwhile has written to digital minister Matt Hancock warning of potential conflict of interests in his future dealings with the ex-chancellor.
Looking at MPs’ code of conduct, paragraph 10 stipulates that “members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest”.
Paragraph 14 also states that information MPs receive in confidence in the course of their parliamentary duties should be used “only in connection with those duties”. Paragraph 16, meanwhile, says that MPs must not take any action that would “cause significant damage to the reputation and the integrity” of the Commons or its members.
There are currently no rules prohibiting MPs from holding other sources of employment. The conduct states that MPs must not act as a “paid advocate”, and have to properly declare their financial interests in the Register of Members’ Interests.
In an open letter to his constituents, Osborne outlined his reasons for taking the Standard job. He insisted his work as an MP will continue “unaffected” and hailed a “long tradition of politics and journalism mixing”.
Referring to his role pushing the Northern Powerhouse initiative, Osborne concluded: “I believe this diversity of experience makes our Parliament stronger. I hope you agree and I look forward to continuing to hear what you have to say and to work with you on the problems we face and the great future we can all build.”
Ultimately it appears it will be up to Osborne himself or the good people of Tatton to decide at the ballot box whether he is right to serve as an MP while editing a national paper.
It also poses the tantalising prospect over how Osborne will use the paper as a conduit to attack the government. Every splash will be pored over for potential swipes against the prime minister. Tony Blair perhaps rightly said that the appointment “should make politics more interesting”.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart believes that politicians benefit from outside knowledge, and that the problem lies with whether there are adequate mechanisms in place to deal with potential conflicts of interest. “I think broadly speaking that the wider the experience of MPs is the better it is, as long as you always know what comes first and what comes first are your constituents,” she says.
Stuart, who edits this publication, also had some career guidance for Osborne. “I’d say that given that you’re taking on a daily of national significance, even if you’re ‘Super George’, you may have a problem.”