We can’t expect higher standards from politicians and then stick them on game shows

Matt Hancock, the disgraced former health secretary has been revealed as a contestant on “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here.”  He follows other politicians into reality TV prepared for ritual humiliation and hoping for a bit more name recognition and celebrity status.  At the tamer end of things we’ve seen Ann Widdicombe, Ed Balls and Vince Cable appear on Strictly and of course politicians have habitually sought to build their profile on Have I got News for you, most notably our former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

 Hancock isn’t the first in the jungle with Nadine Dorries previously taking on its unpleasant tasks.  Although she had the whip suspended, it did her long-term political career no harm with her going on to serve in Johnson’s cabinet as culture secretary. Suspending the whip whilst the person is already on the show may signal the politician’s party’s displeasure but is hardly a penalty or deterrent if the person is able to waltz straight back in afterwards.

Whilst Hancock is taking on his bushtucker trials, his constituents will be without democratic representation. He will be unable to meet them at constituency surgeries, he will not be able to speak in the House of Commons, sit on select committees, ask questions or vote.  This, combined with acting in a way that brings parliamentarians into further disrepute is, in my opinion, a serious dereliction of duty in public office.

At a minimum, this kind of action should be seen as a breach of the standards expected of an MP and the matter should be referred to the Public Standard committee. It should be the kind of thing that can lead to a suspension from the House of Commons, triggering a re-call ballot and enabling his constituents to elect an MP that will represent them.

To be honest, if we are serious about cleaning up public life and restoring good standards then I would go further. I believe that dereliction of duty in public office should be a criminal offence but also that incitement and enticement to commit the offence should be against the law too. TV executives have their part to play too in changing the culture. It is incongruous at least that producers should commission news programmes complaining about standards in public life whilst also encouraging politicians to act in ways that undermine those expected standards.

I shared this opinion on Twitter and Facebook the other day and it provoked a little reaction. Several people thought that making a change like this would be too difficult and require further and significant systemic change.  I thought it might be helpful to respond a little to those objections and challenges here.

First of all, some people thought it would not be possible because at present MPs are allowed to take on second jobs and if we were to outlaw one form of additional work, we would need to outlaw them all. Now, some people might consider that a good thing.  I’m personally comfortable with MPs having additional work providing it doesn’t interfere with their parliamentary responsibilities.  However, there is clearly a significant difference between having additional work which may cause you to be busier and choosing to pursue an activity that will take you away from the country and completely prevent you from fulfilling your duties. It’s the difference between taking on evening work and agreeing to a job which will conflict with your normal working day.

Now, the point about additional and conflicting jobs above is intended to be illustrative. There are differences between the role of an MP and normal employment.  Interestingly, there was some discussion as to whether or not MPs are employed and whether that would limit ability to change things.  The point is that MPs do not have normal working hours and are not required even to be in the House of Commons for a minimum period. Sinn Fein MPs have never even taken their seats at Westminster.[1]  MPs have traditionally been considered to be office holders rather than employees. It’s worth noting though that in recent years for tax and employment rights purposes, there has been a greater willingness by tribunals and bodies like HM Customs and Excise to read in an employment contract even where there isn’t such an explicit contract if a person is clearly receiving a form of renumeration. This has been significant in the church context because ministers of religion were also traditionally considered office holders but will now be assumed to be employees. It has also affected churches taking on apprentices with a requirement to ensure they receive a minimum wage.  It’s worth noting that MPs often seek the same kinds of employment rights and protections as normal employees including pay rises, pensions, maternity and paternity leave etc. 

However, the changes I’m proposing don’t require any change to the employment status of MPs.  Nor indeed, do they need wider systemic change.  The principles are already in place because MPs are governed by a set of standards and subject to censure.  It is no longer the case that they can simply win elections and do what they please in between. All that is required is to adapt the code of conduct required and if desired add a short Act to the statute book in order to make dereliction of duty a criminal offence.[2]

Additionally, whilst this does not require systemic change, there is a strong case that systemic change to the cultures and practices of Westminster do need to change. However, rather than a small rule change being dependent on systemic change, it is often the case that the small change becomes the catalyst for greater reform.

[1] I suspect that the specific example here will make it politically impossible to change the law and require MPs to take their seats.

[2] It may for example state that dereliction of duty includes acting in such a manner that it is impossible to fulfil the duties for which the MP was elected.  The Act could handle the Sinn Fein question by providing an exception where the MP had made it clear in their election manifesto that they would not take their seat.

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