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UK parliamentarians are permitted to hold second jobs unless they are ministers. Many MPs, particularly amongst the Conservatives, have availed themselves of this opportunity. For example, Jacob Rees-Mogg is paid around £29,000 a month for hosting a program on the GB News channel. Similarly, former Tory cabinet minsters Brandon Lewis and Chris Skidmore both earn £150,000+ for work outside of parliament. Famously, former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox earned £6 million in 16 years and was known to have voted by proxy in parliament whilst carrying out paid work on a second job. The campaign group Led by Donkeys duped ex-ministers Kwasi Kwarteng and Matt Hancock into agreeing to work for a fake Korean company for £10,000 a day.

Holding second jobs is by no means exclusive to Tory MPs, with shadow foreign secretary David Lammy earning £90,000 for a second job. A somewhat dated list of MPs with second jobs can be found here.

My question is why is this practice permitted at all? Most UK full time work contracts prevent employees from working elsewhere. Being an MP is presumably a highly taxing and demanding profession, over and above other work roles. Moreover, permitting second jobs would seem to throw the door to corruption and anti-democratic influencing wide open. The only argument I have seen for permitting second jobs is that it provides MPs with important experience outside of the Whitehall bubble. Besides this claim being somewhat undermined by some MP's second jobs being linked to donor firms (and hence still presumably within the same bubble), why can't they volunteer? Presumably this would provide equally good, if not better, exposure to wider society whilst limiting the potential for corruption?

So my question is, what are the arguments for permitting MPs to hold second jobs despite the obvious risks of doing so?

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    Ministers have two labour-intensive jobs: an executive job as a Minister running a department and the country; and a representative/legislative job as a Member of Parliament. What they are not allowed is a third job. But most ministers manage to find the time for both, suggesting that other MPs may be able to find the time to do other things as well as their representative/legislative job. Would you ban other time-consuming activities such as writing books or newspaper articles as being a distraction from the position as MPs?
    – Henry
    Apr 21 at 12:31
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    This feels too cynical to post as an answer, but the obvious explanation as to why this is permitted is that outlawing it would require the MPs themselves to vote on it, and they have a vested interest in keeping it legal because it earns them more money.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 21 at 13:07
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    @F1Krazy On similar lines, a hypothesis rather than an answer but: party leaders who aspire to be Prime Minister have an incentive to keep MPs distracted from the job, because if MPs are fully-focused, they might start holding the executive branch of government to account for its decisions. Apr 21 at 13:30
  • @Henry, interesting perspective which I had not considered. That being said, a difference between holding a second / third job and carrrying out other time consuming activities is that standard work contracts tend to prohibit the first and permit the second. Why should MPs be any different?
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 21 at 14:40
  • In many US states, a job is necessary by design, as the legislator salary is below the poverty line (e.g. $100 total in New Hampshire).
    – user71659
    Apr 22 at 5:01

7 Answers 7

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One important reason it is allowed is that it hasn't been forbidden. By default, things are legal. It would take some political action in order to change the law and unless that is mustered, the status quo will continue. There has been other political change in the last several years on related topics -

  • recall petitions for kicking out an MP before an election rolls around,
  • the Parliamentary expenses scandal and subsequent changes to expenses rules and reporting,
  • increased willingness of parties to withdraw the whip from scandal-afflicted MPs, and
  • more rigorous reporting of outside interests,

which probably reduce the appetite among MPs for enacting an outright ban on second jobs. An incoming Labour government would likely be more willing to support a ban, given that Labour members are less active than Conservatives in gaining a lot of money from outside sources.

Among principled arguments for not banning outside jobs, the reasons split into either (1) the ban would be a bad idea, and (2) it might be a good idea, but it wouldn't be workable.

For (1), the main argument (e.g. from Geoffrey Cox) is that it ought to be up to the voters to decide whether a particular MP should keep their job. There is a suspicion of putting too much power in the hands of Parliamentary watchdogs. It's also been said that restrictions on outside work would make the job of MP less attractive to people like doctors, who have to put certain hours in so that they can maintain professional status, and so a ban would mean even more dominance by an in-group of party apparatchiks. Farmers, or people who run family businesses, could also be disadvantaged by a strict ban. If the ban is phrased in terms of spending time on other activities, then it would also catch MPs doing charitable work, or who are military reservists. It's also been argued (e.g. by Alex Burghart, Commons debate of 23 Feb 2023) that "there is no second job or outside interest that could possibly compete with the amount of time that a Minister is expected to spend on their job", and if that is deemed acceptable then other jobs should not be treated more strictly.

As to (2), there are practical objections about how a ban would be enforced. If it is not an outright ban, but only restricts MPs' income or time to a threshold, then somebody has to keep track of all that data and investigate breaches. There are difficulties about the effectiveness of any given threshold. We might say that they could work for five hours per month, but some MPs can earn tens of thousands per hour giving paid speeches. We might impose a cap on earnings, but it's not obvious what should happen if a book from a novelist MP's back catalogue suddenly becomes immensely popular, netting them a bunch of money for no incremental effort. Different views could be taken about which sorts of activities like this ought to be allowed.

(I'm not saying that I personally agree with any of the above, but these are some of the things that have been said.)

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  • Some good points in (2). Further, if you ban earnings, there are likely to be routes to bypass this e.g. by converting them into dividend payments from a service company.
    – mikado
    Apr 22 at 19:56
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A combination of two things: history, and a reluctance to change the rules.

Historically, MPs were usually well-off landowners; and being an MP was a part-time job. They continued to run their estates and draw rents from their tenants while travelling up to London occasionally when required.

This changed gradually, but there was never a single point in time when you could say this was no longer acceptable. There are still some MPs today who fit into this tradition, and it's hard to argue that it was OK in the past but is no longer OK today.

There will also be those who argue that having one foot in Westminster and another outside helps to keep MPs more aware of the real world.

Personally I'm comfortable with MPs continuing to earn a side income from writing, speaking, farming, renting out property, or earning dividends from a business that has been in the family for generations. I'm less comfortable with them earning fees as consultants or non-executive directors of financial services businesses or pharma companies. But how do you define the distinction?

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  • yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/… The jobs most commonly worked by MPs are indeed hugely unacceptable as a sidejob while being an MP. The point(s) in time when you could say that were at the latest 2021 (because that's when this poll was made).
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 22 at 10:22
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    On a sidenote: Huge fees for public speakings is an obvious and easy way to bribe politicians legally so I'm not sure why it falls into your "tolerable" sidejobs, most of which are wholly respectable (except being a landlord because that is a huge issue right now in the UK that landlords are massively overrepresented because most MPs are them).
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 22 at 10:24
  • apart from the personal opinions in the last paragraph, good answer. Apr 22 at 11:04
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    It's a little bit hard to answer a question "what are the arguments" on such a question without giving personal opinions. Apr 23 at 11:29
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    And arguing that landlords are overrepresented is a bit like arguing that lawyers, or people with degrees, or people with high ambition are overrepresented. There's nothing in the principles of democracy that says MPs need to have similar personal attributes to their consituents. Apr 23 at 11:51
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EDIT: I completely misremembered the title question while typing this answer. I was responding to "why is the status quo what it is" and not the actual question. Which is why it absolutely doesn't make any points in that regard.

The ones that would have to forbid the sidejobs are the ones profiting off them

That's the reason why it hasn't been changed, because with that huge a salary and the insane potential for abuse / legal bribery there isn't really any conclusive argument.

All the other answers here are perfectly valid, but are far outweighed by the negative implications of the current system, if one were to approach the topic objectively and neutrally.

But that will likely never happen, as usual with rules concerning the rulemakers.

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    This is a very simpolistic answer that doesn't engage with the other points raised.
    – deep64blue
    Apr 22 at 9:47
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    @deep64blue please elaborate on those other points raised (as in what did I miss). Because I'd call all of them irrelevant compared to the rampant corruption that the current system facilitates. It is also hugely unpopular (for the most common "side" jobs) so the only actual reason is that there is a huge conflict of interest in formalizing this popular restriction: yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/…
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 22 at 10:20
  • Whilst I am inclined to agree with this answer, it doesn't really address the question of arguments for having a second job (regardless of their validity).
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 22 at 19:02
  • @BenCohen sorry, I completely misremembered the title question while typing this answer. I was responding to "why is the status quo what it is" and not your actual question. Which is why it absolutely doesn't make any points in that regard.
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 23 at 12:05
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They're more likely to be financially independent, so they're less likely to rely on gifts and political donors to sustain themselves.

Transparency, since it's allowed, politicians are more likely to disclose their conflicts of interests and the fact they hold a second job.

Contribution to economy. Since they work, their work will be taxed and they will contribute to the GDP.

I can't think of anything else beside these three arguments.

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    In the UK MPs receive a salary for being MPs, 86000 pounds according to wikipedia. So they are financially independent just by being MPs. They don't need to rely on gifts to sustain themselves.
    – quarague
    Apr 22 at 6:44
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    @quarague, though some MPs claim that that is insufficient for them to survive comfortably!
    – Ben Cohen
    Apr 22 at 8:24
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    @Hobbamok The question is asking for arguments for allowing MPs to work second jobs. It's not asking what the pros and cons are. Apr 22 at 12:48
  • @MiniRagnarok I know (now), I completely misread the question :/
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 23 at 12:29
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Working as a back bench MP was historically a part-time job, and would have to pay more to provide solely for the lifestyle of someone so important. As the answer by Michael Kay to this question explains:

Historically, MPs were usually well-off landowners; and being an MP was a part-time job. They continued to run their estates and draw rents from their tenants while travelling up to London occasionally when required.

This changed gradually, but there was never a single point in time when you could say this was no longer acceptable. There are still some MPs today who fit into this tradition, and it's hard to argue that it was OK in the past but is no longer OK today.

The practice of lords and wealth families in the U.K. having both a London home and a home somewhere in the country from which they received farm rents, is also an ancient one in the U.K., which is historically attested for centuries.

While this is less true in the U.K. parliament than it is in the U.S. Congress or state legislatures in geographically large states in the U.S., it is still true the many MPs have to maintain two homes, one in the capital in or near London, and the other in the locality from which they are elected. So MPs are under more pressure to earn money, and their pay as MPs doesn't go as far as people who only have one home.

Allowing them to publicly work for pay makes them less susceptible to bribery from non-employes as they seek to maintain a lifestyle suitable for what they perceive as their station.

Relatedly, one can afford to have more MPs for the same budget, at the rate of pay necessary for an MP to relying on their public salary as their sole source of income, than one can if one pays MPs at the current rate which can be supplemented from other sources.

These arguments are somewhat undermined by what MPs are paid, however, which is a fairly comfortable salary that addresses the two residences and travel expense issue:

The basic annual salary for an MP from 1 April 2024 is £91,346.

MPs also receive expenses to cover the costs of running an office, employing staff, having somewhere to live in London or their constituency, and travelling between Parliament and their constituency.

The modern trend, however, is for the job to demand more time from MPs which puts pressure on their work-life balance. As one anonymous person explained:

Certainly from my own experience of working for an MP, whilst Parliament is sitting an MP can work around 70 hours per week, sometimes more. During recess the working week is much the same - at least six days, with trying to keep much of Sunday for themselves (although occasional constituency engagements may happen), so the week's working hours may be more like 40-50. When Parliament is sitting, MPs usually travel to London on the Sunday afternoon or evening (many will return to constituencies on the Thursday evening), so it's uncommon that there is ever a completely free day in the week (holidays excepted, although work is still taken and MPs will still keep in contact with their office and colleagues).

Marc Carter in the same thread states:

I doubt there are many MPs who work less than 35 hours a week.

Allowing MPs to work at second jobs when MPs are truly working full-time as MPs is more problematic, because the more hours an MP works as an MP, the more the pay that they receive for their good paying full-time jobs appear to be pay for who they know, and not for what they do, stinking of corruption.

The U.S. Case Compared

Notably, most U.S. state legislatures also have part-time legislators (this is also true in Switzerland). And, part-time legislators in U.S. states are often paid far less than a full-time employee at a mid-level professional position.

The practice in that context is justified, in part, because "citizen-legislators" are believed to be more in touch with the realities of every day life faced by ordinary citizens than full time legislators.

Many U.S. states also praise the part-time legislator model for the express reason that it reduces the amount of time spent legislating, which in turn, may reduce the amount of unnecessary legislation that is passed.

But, again, these justifications fall apart when supposedly "part-time" legislators are working 2000 or more hours a year.

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One point not (I think) made in existing answers:

Being an MP is not, in itself, a stable career: an election can be called at any point and you might then find yourself unemployed at short notice. If the role is to be attractive to capable people from outside the broader 'industry' of politics, they need to be confident that they will be able to find good opportunities at the end of their parliamentary service. For many - particularly those coming from regulated professions such as medicine - it may be important that they are able to maintain some degree of involvement with their original career.

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A few reasons I can think of for allowing it.

  1. It allows people with real skills to keep practicing those skills while also being an mp. That's an advantage because people who work or actually have worked in the real world have valuable knowledge and experience which career politicians would not.
  2. By not allowing this, you would significantly in my view reduce the number of candidates to become MP's, naturally leading to lower quality or restricting members to those who can afford to lose their seat.
  3. It'd probably lead to an increase in career politicans who have no experience in real industry.

I think we can all agree that career politicians are undesirable and by allowing this flexibility we should get more experienced people in parliament.

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