Political double acts: Should MPs be allowed to job-share?
- 23 November 2012
- From the section UK Politics
How would you feel if you had not one MP, but two? A sort of political double act. Would it mean a more representative voice for voters or would it just be double the trouble?
Labour MP, John McDonnell wants the law changed to allow MPs to job-share, a move which he says would help make Parliament more diverse.
This "minor, modernising reform" would, he claims, help women, disabled people and carers to stand as candidates and make the House of Commons more reflective of the people it serves.
But the move has been described as "bonkers", "outrageous", a "dangerous attempt at constitutional meddling" and a "crackpot idea" that would make Parliament "like a reality TV show".
In 2010 a committee, set up by the Speaker, looked into representation in Parliament and said it was a matter of justice "that there should be a place within the House of Commons for individuals from all sections of society".
Mr McDonnell, who has cross-party support for his bill, argues that Parliament is far from representative at the moment - more than 75% of MPs are male and only a small number of MPs are disabled.
He says other public services and businesses are embracing the idea of job-sharing and it is time politics followed suit.
Under the plans, two people who want to stand for the same party would enter into a job-sharing agreement before an election and both their names would then appear on the ballot paper.
Once in the Commons, each job-sharing MP would be entitled to a half-vote on legislation and Commons motions, with one able to cast a full vote if both MPs were in agreement.
The plans would not cost the taxpayer any more as both job-sharers would share one MP's allowances between them.
Although the exact way in which MPs might share their workload once elected has yet to be worked out, the Labour MP wants to get the principle of job-sharing into law - which currently lets only a "single member" be elected per constituency.
The plan has been backed by a number of politicians, barristers, journalists, academics and comedian Jo Brand.
Deborah King, who has been campaigning for the change and set up an e-petition to try and get it debated in the Commons, says it's a matter of disability rights.
"Disabled people haven't got effective representation in the United Kingdom," she says. "We need 65 disabled MPs if we are to reflect the population of the UK."
"There are plenty of disabilities that prevent people from working full-time, but that shouldn't be a barrier."
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, who has a walking disability, has chosen not to talk about his disability, choosing instead to campaign in other areas.
But he has decided to back Mr McDonnell's bill, across the party divide, because he thinks Parliament needs a "radical shake-up".
"To be a full-time MP with a significant disability is incredibly difficult," he says.
"Parliament is a gruelling place. Contrary to what the media reports, the hours are long. We are often here late at night voting.
"The amount of walking you do from building to building and meeting to meeting is quite extraordinary.
"And you've got a lot activities on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the constituency which involve additional walking around."
Allowing job-share MPs would, Mr Halfon says, bring Parliament into line with other workplaces and widen the number of people who would think about becoming an MP.
Others have raised the issue of gender equality and boosting the number of female MPs - who are seen as more likely to have caring and family responsibilities that are seen as a barrier to women standing for Parliament.
Conservative MP Claire Perry has backed the notion of job-sharing cabinet posts as a "powerful signal" that would "allow women to achieve their best and also recognise the complexity of many of our lives".
One disabled MP, Dame Anne Begg, who was vice chair of the Speaker's conference and has added her name to the bill, wants to see the idea "get an airing" but is all too aware of some of the practical problems.
"If someone's constituency is far away a job share that splits the week is not necessarily going to be possible.
"And because we often don't know what the business in the House will be until a week before, both MPs may want to be in Parliament at the same time if things they are interested in are being debated.
"Constituents may also end of going to both MPs. This happens now in the Scottish Parliament, where we have constituency members and regional members."
Concerns have also been raised about how membership of select committees would work for job-sharers, how much time each MP would get to speak in the House and whether constituencies with two MPs would get an advantage by having more representation than those with only a single MP.
Deborah King insists these kinds of difficulties can be overcome: "These are reasonable adjustments that disabled people need made for them in the workplace.
"Workplaces up and down the country make reasonable adjustments for disabled people and the House of Commons needs to get into the 21st century."
However, Tory MP Sir Roger Gale says the idea is simply incompatible with the role of an MP and is "parliamentary populism and opportunism at its absolute worst".
"Members of the public elect members of parliament. They don't elect time-sharers and it's not a job that you can do time-sharing.
"A member of parliament has to be on top of absolutely everything effecting his constituents, his postbag and his parliamentary work himself.
"It's simply not possible to simply just hand everything over to somebody else half way through the day.
"I think this is sheer lunacy and completely impractical and I cannot see it going anywhere at all.
"You become a member of parliament as a vocation and it involves very many hours of work, a huge amount of commitment and a huge amount of sacrifice on the part of people's families.
"If people aren't prepared to do that they shouldn't stand for parliament. There are many other ways in which they can serve society."
Mr McDonnell's bill is what is known as a 10 minute rule bill, which means there is very little chance the change will become law - something which supporters like Mr Halfon accept.
But the "nettle has been grasped" he says. "It's important not just to knock this idea down but actually look at ways we could take this forward."