August 14, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Mark Simmonds, the MP for Boston and Skegness in Lincolnshire and the Foreign Office Minister for Africa, announced this week that he would be stepping down from Parliament, saying that he needed to “put family life first”. The reaction to this says a lot about our inability to understand that politicians are human beings. Sooner or later we will end up only getting politicians who are so rich they can ignore the financial implications of their job, or career politicians who have no other option. People like Simmonds, who have worked in the real world and are tempted to come into politics to give the benefit of their life experience, will be no more.
Simmonds’s reasoning, if you don’t understand how being an MP works, is difficult to sympathise with based on the figures involved. Referring in particular to the changes in the Parliamentary expenses system that were brought in after the expenses scandals in 2009, He said: “The allowances that enable Members of Parliament to stay in London while they are away from their families – my family lives in Lincolnshire in my constituency – does not allow me to rent a flat which can accommodate my family, so I very rarely see my family and I have to put family life first.” Mr Simmonds also said the idea of spending another five years rarely seeing his children and staying in a different hotel room each night “fills me with horror”.
The reason people have found it difficult to sympathise with Simmonds is that he was paid over £90,000 for his job as a Minister, his wife was paid £20,000 to run his constituency office, and he is allowed to spend over £27,000 on rent a year for a London flat. You can see why it is hard to sympathise with his situation. Simmonds owns a house in his constituency and £2000 a month is enough to get a decent flat within 20 minutes or so of Westminster. I will come back to this all in a moment.
The former MP Chris Mullin (whose diaries I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in what it is like being an MP), pointed out two issues with Mr Simmonds’ resignation: The first is that Simmonds had a great job, one that Mullin had done, which was helping to solve issues in Africa, and to leave that raises questions about why he was in politics. The second problem was basically that Simmonds wasn’t finding it hard to live on ministerial wages, but he WAS finding it hard to live a Tory’s life on ministerial wages. It’s possible to do it if you send your children to state school, use the NHS, and live within your means. But Mullin suggests that Simmonds may have been trying to put his children through private school, pay for private medical insurance for the whole family, and was finding it hard to keep up with the means of his particular electorate. Mullin pointed out that in a labour voting constituency, the MP is likely to be one of the highest earners, but not in a Tory voting constituency. So Simmonds’ real problem was that of keeping up with the Jones’s as well as keeping up the life he had before he entered Parliament.
Well, that’s one way to look at it. But let’s step back and actually look at Simmonds’s position here. The life of an MP with children involves spending four days at least away from your family in London before having three days in your constituency. Some people are OK with that, some aren’t. Simmonds, and maybe his wife and family, found it difficult. Bear in mind that if you are an MP out of London you have to have two properties. Until 2009, Simmonds had a house in Putney, for which they could claim mortgage relief. They also owned a property I their constituency. But in response to the expenses scandal in 2009, this mortgage relief was abolished, and rental allowances are used instead. So Simmonds had to sell his house. Not only that, his family would have had to move up to the constituency as the rental allowance would not get a property anywhere near the size of property they would need in London for the family to live there during the week. Now, you can get an 8 bedroom mansion in Simmonds’s constituency for £27,000 a year rent, but MP’s rental allowances vary according to where they are in the country, so that wasn’t possible either.
Because of the way the public view politicians, Simmonds should maybe have not concentrated so much on the money aspect, and more on the family aspect. I struggle to spend one night away from my family, he had to do four. I think that can put a lot of strain on a marriage and a family, and I wonder if he was protecting his wife in particular by talking more about money and less about family. He had a very successful career before becoming an MP and so would have taken a hefty income drop before entering politics. We will miss out on the skills which make someone successful in their previous career if we cant find a way to smooth that transition.
There is also a possible political aspect here. Simmonds has an 11,000 majority, but recently UKIP received 51% of the vote in the EU Parliament elections in his constituency area. An MP is basically self-employed, and can lose their job and income at one day’s notice on the day of an election. UKIP are already making noises about targeting the Boston and Skegness seat, and Simmonds may have seen that coming.
Coming back to what I said at the start of this blog. I am frustrated by how so many people have expectations of MPs that they would not tolerate being put on themselves. The time away from family, the salary that has been kept from growing as it should have due to the cowardice of Parliament (and the former generosity of the expense system), and the expectation that everyone should be in politics purely from the goodness of their heart are just unrealistic, and in the future we may pay for the resultant lack of quality of people entering the job.