Nadhim Zahawi leaves 10 Downing Street. Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street

Once again, Britain finds itself in the middle of a row. The latest political divide was triggered by another Tory scandal involving the former MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson.  Since leaving his ministerial role in Cameron’s cabinet, Paterson had been raking in generous amounts of side income from second jobs while serving as a taxpayer-paid Member of Parliament. For his paid “consultancy services”, he received £8,333 a month from Randox Laboratories — the same company that has received over £500m in government contracts since the pandemic— and £2,000 every other month from Lynn’s Country Foods.

[Read: Almost £1bn Worth of Taxpayers’ Money Wasted on Failed Track & Trace Contracts]

The scandal did not stop there. Further disclosures revealed former Attorney General, Sir Geoffrey Cox QC, likewise earned a second income of £1m last year from his legal work, which includes tax-haven clients like the government of the British Virgin Islands. Over the past 16 years, he has accrued over £6m from his legal work on the side — far outsizing his annual MP salary of £82,000.

It now emerges that the recently promoted Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, earned £1.3m in second income from the oil company Gulf Keystone Petroleum while serving as an MP since 2010.

For many versed in Tory politics, the proximity between business and government comes as no surprise. Even the former Prime Minister David Cameron was implicated in lobbying for the now-collapsed financial services company, Greensill Capital, and raking in $10m income. Likewise, their willingness to bend the rules to extract financial favour is far from novel; while it has been over a decade since the expenses scandal of 2009, MPs like Geoffrey Cox still claim expenses for rentals despite owning property in London.

The recent scandals, however, raise legitimate questions for debate: should MPs have second jobs when most employees contractually can’t? If so, what types of jobs can they definitely not be?

It is easy, if not even lazy, for Labour to say no to both. Too often, Labour are too quick to jump on the bandwagon of outrage followed by some expression of moral superiority. It is true that there is some sort of double standard where MPs can earn these figures with ease whereas ordinary employees are prohibited from their employers from taking up a second paid job. This is accentuated by the existing difference in pay: MPs already earn more than double the national average salary of £31,361. But to condemn second incomes in Parliament per se is misguided.

Banning the opportunity for MPs to earn incomes on the side creates a false dichotomy between public service and financial security. Capping income risks detracting the rising, ambitious talent to investment banks, law firms, financial services and tech avenues of the private sector — all of which pay miles above. It also re-erects the barriers to politics to only open for those who already come from lots of money: stuffing British Parliament with more Jacob Reese-Moggs and Rishi Sunaks of the world. The message that will follow will be this: you can’t make money while you’re in Parliament, if you make your millions before, then that’s permissible. Whatever progress British politics has made in moving away from the image of privilege and aristocratic heritage will be cheapened.

Most of all, it furthers Labour’s image as anti-work and anti-success — a contradiction of terms. High-paid work should not be demonised, especially not those that are products of years of work, qualification and skill. Take the MPs who also trained as doctors, such as Rosena Allin-Khan MP for Tooting, who continues to take shifts during parliamentary recesses and, unsurprisingly, during the pandemic. We should seek to attract skilled professionals to represent their constituents because they bring rich experience, perspective and add value to politics. But can we really say these types of second jobs are more acceptable than others, say, consultants?

Now is the time for rules to be re-drawn, nuances to be addressed and caveats considered. Rather than outright banning second incomes, the debate should centre on reform: stricter rules on lobbying and using parliamentary property for second jobs, screens excluding MPs where potential conflicts of interest exist, and a “disclosure +” system where these conflicts are highlighted and explained to constituents rather than merely disclosed. Skilled jobs should be accepted but ambiguous; disproportionately-paid advisory or consultancy roles are right to be scrutinised. Employers should likewise be encouraged to ease their restrictive covenants following a similar type of model so that it is a fairer standard for all.

As it stands, MPs have too much spare time to take up a second job while constituents struggle to access time with their representatives. Reform should include more time spent by MPs in surgeries, mandating visits twice or thrice a week rather than once. If they are required to carry out more of their parliamentary duties, maybe then MPs will spend most of their days serving public — and not private — interests.