There has been no little speculation in recent weeks about MPs’ appreciation for the rule of law. The most curious part, in a way, of such criticism is that the Commons is stuffed full of lawyers – dozens have either qualified as a solicitor or barristers and many more studied law at university.
Yet perhaps the problem lies tucked away in MPs’ extra-curricular earnings, which is updated every quarter and was brought up to date last week. In short, lawyers in parliament have stopped lawyering. Just 19 have registered any earnings from legal-related work, and of those merely a handful have actually practised since the election last December.
There are a handful of exceptions. Solicitor Fiona Bruce (not that one) registered income of more than £200,000 from consultancy work at her Warrington firm. A couple more solicitor MPs retain an equity stake in firms in their constituencies, while two more are contracted to provide legal consultancy.
Even the days of high-flying barristers occasionally stepping out of court for a little parliamentary work have gone. Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox registered around £194,000 in the last year (although this was well down on previous years) including some £33,000 in two weeks prior to lockdown, but most other barristers have stopped.
What is noticeable is that some barristers actually gave up good earnings to concentrate on being an MP. Derbyshire Dales’ Sarah Dines registered £59,000 and Newbury MP Laura Farris £42,000 in the last year, but in both cases these payments were exclusively for work done before the election in December 2019. They have done no legal work since.
Does any of this matter? To those who believe MPs should have no extra earnings it will be music to the ears. Being an MP is more than a full-time vocation – for those in any doubt about how all-consuming the job becomes then read Oona King’s diaries from her time in the Commons. Most wouldn’t swap a legal career for that, no matter how many late nights they have to pull poring over cases.
But perhaps parliament is missing something by not having so many practising lawyers. Perhaps elected representatives would benefit from an ear to the ground, a dipped toe into the realities of clients’ lives. The Westminster bubble could be burst, even if only occasionally, and MPs might be exposed to some of the problems they are supposed to legislate against. The perception that a legal career must be sacrificed could even – heaven forbid – create the risk that we end up with a parliament of intellectual lightweights and professional politicians.
This is not an invitation for MPs to start ignoring constituency work and return to the bar or solicitors office full-time. But the paucity of lawyer MPs still involved in the law means that our legal politicians make no use of the experience and expertise they have accrued, which seems a waste. At the very least, the accusation they undermine the rule of law would be easier to answer if they were still involved in it.