Imagine paying someone three times the average salary and then finding that he works only five days a month. Yet, for some reason, we in Northern Ireland tolerate that kind of performance from some of our MPs.
It’s all about “constituency service”, apparently. Yet we have Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, independent Advice Centres, lots of MLA offices, and local councillors for that. No, actually, it isn’t about “constituency service” – we do not pay each of our MPs £200k in salary and costs for that (by the way, give me that and I’ll soon provide a “good service”!)
We pay them to legislate; not just to vote on issues, but to shape debate, to make deals, to prioritise matters and hold people to account in committees, and so on. There can be crucial votes of global importance – like the Syrian intervention; there can be debates shaped – like including Kincora in Child Abuse inquiries; there can be matters prioritised – like regional airports, of interest to Nottingham, and Carlisle, and Belfast; and there are finance officers, security personnel, NIO officials and all kinds of others who need questions asked about performance on our behalf. That takes more than a day a week or so!
MPs are also getting away with the claim that their votes don’t matter because most legislation affects only England. Wrong. This is in fact almost never then case. Firstly, some legislation applies in its entirety to Northern Ireland – sometimes directly (broadcasting, defence, aviation), sometimes indirectly (pensions, business registration – these are always adopted by the NI Assembly). Secondly, most legislation has at least some effect in Northern Ireland – the Child Poverty Act imposes targets on the NI Executive, for example, and even the Single Equality Act has an impact on some off-shore and security operations. Thirdly, almost all legislation has a financial effect – the raising of Tuition Fees reduced the NI Budget (as consequentials assume a similar hike here, which never happened, so we had to find the money from other budgets to cover the gap), but an extra £8b for Health in England would add around £275m to the NI Budget (consequentials mean it comes at around £3.45 for every £100 added in England). That is before we even get to Votes of Confidence, Budget votes, Queen’s Speech votes, military intervention votes where, in a hung parliament, all votes can count.
The very notion we would elect MPs not to turn up at all, or who turn up so rarely that they are not even fully informed when they do, or who pay such scant attention that they miss the opportunity to shape debate and do deals (on, say, international aid, regional airports or pension provision), is utterly ludicrous.
But, of course, democracy is the worst possible form of government apart from all the others we’ve tried…