All aboard! The Westminster gravy train just got cleared for departure again

The government just gave MPs a season ticket to continue riding the financial free-for-all: from Lammy’s £226 an hour to speak via Bone’s £194 an hour to fill out surveys.

Credit: Bywire News, Canva
Credit: Bywire News, Canva
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LONDON (Bywire News) - While the rest of us struggle under the weight of the cost-of-living crisis, spare a thought for MPs. Despite a scandal in 2021, it looks like they’ll continue to rake it in off the Westminster gravy train – because the government is not going to act over MPs having second jobs. 

Another year, another scandal

It all kicked off in late 2021 with the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal. He’d been earning over £100,000 a year while being a Tory MP; scandalous enough in itself you’d think. Not really – because that’s not what people were upset about. The ‘second jobs scandal’ started because Paterson was lobbying the government for the company he worked for and ended up quitting as an MP.

More revelations followed – like Geoffrey Cox earning £6m as a lawyer in 16 years while being an MP, too. So, the predictable responses from parliament followed: Labour went on the offensive (backed up by the Guardian), while the government said it would act (probably with the phrase ‘lessons must be learned’ thrown in somewhere). 

UK PM Boris Johnson promised restrictions on work MPs could do on top of their role in parliament. The Independent reported that this included banning political consultancy/lobbying jobs as well as:

blocking MPs from posts which take up so much time that they stop them carrying out their parliamentary and constituency duties”.

Deputy PM Dominic Raab also said the government would support “reasonable” limits on MP’s second jobs’ earnings – either by putting a limit on the amount or the number of hours worked. So, the predictable parliamentary “consultation” followed, with a committee looking at the issue. We now know that it was essentially pointless.

The gravy train continues 

On Thursday 17 March the Guardian reported that the government had backtracked on what it said last year. Johnson cronies, ministers Steve Barclay and Mark Spencer, told the committee looking at the issue that:

It is the government’s initial view that the imposition of fixed constraints such as time limits on the amount of time that Members can spend on outside work would be impractical.

The imposition of time limits would not necessarily serve to address recent concerns over paid advocacy and the primary duty of MPs to serve their constituents. It could be possible, for example, for a Member to conduct work within the accepted time limits but that does not necessarily mean such work is ‘appropriate’ even if it did not constitute ‘paid advocacy’.”

In respect of a cap on earnings from outside work to impose such a limit could serve to prohibit activities which do not bring undue influence to bear on the political system. Earnings from activities such as writing books, for example, would not preclude Members from meeting their principal duty to their constituents”.

In other words, the government thinks the Westminster gravy train should continue rumbling along with its current timetable in place. Predictable, hey? But the issue of MPs taking lucrative trips on this very unique mode of financial transport is far from clear cut.

At the time, the problem was painted as a distinctly Conservative one. For example, Nesrine Malik wrote for the Guardian that the second jobs scandal was a ‘very Conservative one’ – a “direct result” of the party and its members’ “ideology”. They noted that it was mostly Conservative MPs with second jobs. While this may be true, it’s not exclusively so.

£194 an hour for doing surveys

Even the briefest skim-read of the MPs register of interests for the financial year 2021 shows, for example, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford [p27] netting £3,247.25 a month for just over 2.5 hours work (eight hours per quarter). What hard-graft, highly skilled job must Blackford be doing to earn him over £38k a year for 32 hours of work? He’s the chairman of a funeral company. Moreover, Blackford also earns £1,575.85 per day for “any additional work”. 

On his basic wage of £3,247.25, Blackford is earning a staggering £1,217.72 an hour. I literally had to read this ten times to make sure it was true. Oh, and to top it off Blackford has given his stepson a job, too. Now, and as the Guardian reported around 144 MPs have second jobs. But there are other ways the rest of parliament makes money, too.

Tory MP Peter Bone, who voted with Labour (and against his own government) over the second jobs row, knows how to game the system. Because like other MPs, his additional income comes in the form of completing surveys for the likes of ComRes. In 2021, Bone earned [p32-33] £2,720 from filling them out; not a lot you might think. But that’s 23 weeks’ worth of money to a disabled person in the UK claiming social security, which Bone earned for just over 14 hours work – a rate of £194 an hour. 

Money for nothing?

Then there are other deals. While the Guardian focused on Johnson getting an £88,000 advance for an (at the time unwritten) book deal, Labour MP Chris Bryant has done similar – albeit with smaller fees involved. Records show [p50] he made over £15,000 in fees for a book not written at the time. This worked out at a not-to-be-sniffed-at hourly rate of around £147. His Labour colleague Diane Abbott earned £230.63 from her advanced book deal [p1], as well.

If you don’t want to write a book, then you can always speak. Labour MP David Lammy notched up [p227-229] over £56k in 2021 from either speaking events or hosting radio shows - £226 an hour to be precise. But former health secretary, Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, outdid Lammy in the ‘paid to drone on’ stakes – earning [p197] £62,400 from just eight speaking engagements; £2,228 an hour. The major difference between him and Lammy though, is that Hunt gave all his fees away to charity. You’d be forgiven for asking which one the Labour MP is. 

The point being with all this is that MPs earing any kind of money away from their allegedly full-time jobs as MPs is a problem – aside from the fact that they already earn plenty and are getting another pay rise this year. 

Feel the grift 

An argument for MPs having second jobs is that it means they bring experience to parliament. But given that the median weekly gross (before tax) full-time wage is £611 for at least 30 hours of work – how does Lammy earning that in less than three hours for opening his cakehole give him experience he can bring to parliament? If anything, he and countless others essentially playing off the fact that we foolishly elected them in the first place makes them even more detached from the real world. 

Lammy doesn’t earn £226 an hour because he’s got a skill other people haven’t. He earns a ridiculous amount of money because of his name. If he was on Twitter sharing a PayPal account for people to give him a gift in return for his writing – then he’d probably be called a grifter. The only difference is he’s an MP with corporations paying him to chat.

Healthy democracies need MPs who understand the experiences of the majority of people. When many of them can earn as much in a day as the rest of us earn in a month, or possibly even a year, it’s of little wonder we’re in the mess we’re in. 

(Writing by Steve Topple, editing by Klaudia Fior)

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