Don't give up the day job

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The Independent Online

Enoch Powell said that all political lives end in failure. Thus warned, should we feel sorry for MPs whose political careers end so brutally?

7 June was a day of reckoning not only for the Conservative Party but for aspiring electoral candidates. Meanwhile, Mr Blair's cabinet reshuffle meant that bloodletting did not end at polling stations. Can MPs draw on employment laws to get compensation for loss of office?

For such a vocal group there is little legal guidance. MPs as elected office holders have no normal employment rights. The same principle applies to ministers who are Crown servants. Accordingly, their rights of redress are limited.

The first-past-the-post rule makes no exceptions for seniority. In a surprise defeat in 1997 Michael Portillo lost his Enfield seat. He was fortunate to be selected as candidate for Kensington and Chelsea when Alan Clark died.

Parallels can be drawn this time with David Lock, a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's department. Mr Lock was ejected from Wyre Forest by the "wild card" independent candidate, Dr Taylor. In common with Portillo he forfeited more than an MP's status. Lock could have retained his ministerial position, but only if he had been elevated to the Lords. John Major adopted this strategy with Linda Chalker in 1992, enabling her to continue as overseas aid minister.

Politicians with Westminster careers cut short have found work in Europe. These include Chris Patten, who lost his seat in 1992 despite the Conservative Party being elected. These opportunities are less likely to be offered to lower profile politicians.

Mr Lock and Keith Vaz, the former minister for Europe, could revert to the law. Ashley Fox, a solicitor, stood as Conservative candidate for Bath. He says that having an outside job is not merely a financial issue. He says "it is important that MPs retain contact with the real world of work and maintain their skills."

Collateral casualties frequently occur after the election. Ironically, Mr Blair's announcement of pay rises for himself and cabinet colleagues followed news of a ministerial cull. This no doubt rubbed salt into exit wounds. Few MPs have been given a second chance like Peter Mandelson. As it has been so quaintly put, some able individuals have to "make way" for others.

Shortly after Mandelson's resignation in February, I asked in this column if the former Northern Ireland Minister had been the victim of constructive dismissal. Did he jump or was he pushed? Bearing in mind his loss of earnings it was arguable that he could have sought redress through the courts. The full circumstances of Mr Vaz's withdrawal as Minister for Europe could merit similar consideration.

The Prime Minister accepted Mr Vaz's resignation apparently acknowledging he had "been put under intolerable pressure recently, which could only have aggravated your illness". Mr Vaz's salary plunges to the basic MP's salary, £48,371. This figure, which came into effect last April, is intended, according to the 1964 Report of the Committee on the Remuneration of Ministers and MPs, to "enable them to discharge the duties of the service, without undue financial worry and to live and maintain themselves and their families at a modest but honourable level". Both Mr Vaz and Mr Blair are fortunate in having wives who can contribute to outgoings.

Retired ministers and MPs do gain pension benefits, though after a brief spell in power these are unlikely to be substantial, being based on salary in the year prior to leaving. Normal pension age is 65 but can be younger if someone retires on health grounds. Mr Vaz may qualify for this.

Can Mr Vaz bring a claim for work related stress? The nature and cause of his ill health are matters of speculation. He may feel entitled to compensation. Employees suffering from a stress-related condition can sometimes seek damages from their employers where it was foreseeable that their health was likely to deteriorate because they were subjected to unreasonable demands at work. These claims are usually based on implied obligations towards employees arising in the context of an employer/employee relationship.

Since the watershed case of Walker v Northumberland County Council in 1995, claims are being brought nationwide and substantial damages are being recovered. In that instance the council were made aware that Walker had a vulnerable personality but still failed to alleviate his excessive workload. The majority of cases settle out of court. In recent claims two teachers, one reported only as "Mr A" and the other, Jan Howell received £300,000 and £254,000 respectively.

There is no reason why the concept of occupational stress should not apply to MPs, particularly when this government has been at the forefront of ensuring rights for ill health and disability. Moreover, in normal circumstances someone forced to resign because of illness could claim constructive dismissal.

John Bowers, a leading employment silk points out that government ministers are office holders, not employees. "There would" he says, "be no employment rights. Obtaining compensation would be a question of whether a minister can extend the principle of the duty of trust and confidence and or negligence." There are no legal precedents involving office holders.

Crown immunity could pose a problem. Richard Gordon, a human rights barrister, comments that if a claim was resisted due to statutory limits on actions against the sovereign, "considerations of crown immunity might need to be revisited given the overriding obligations of the court to construe statutes as being compatible with section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998."

A 1999 decision from the Inverness employment tribunal, in a case involving Lorraine Mann, held that being a member of the Scottish Parliament was, for the purposes of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, a profession or a job. Propelled by the momentum of the new human rights legislation it is possible that protective laws could be further extended in stress cases. Stephen Walsh, an industrial diseases specialist, comments that demands placed on ministers "could have all the ingredients for a successful claim for occupational stress ­ long hours, lack of support from colleagues and management and a breakdown resulting in lost earnings".

Mr Lock faces a sharper drop in income than Mr Vaz as he is no longer an MP. Anyone in politics would find it hard to argue that they did not accept the inherent instability of their employment prospects. MPs are dependent on the electorate and win fixed terms of five years maximum. Tenure can be renewed but there are no certainties. Those former MPs now trying to find alternative employment should accept the fickle nature of the public and the limited term of each electoral mandate. Ex-ministers suffer loss of greater privileges, but should perhaps only feel aggrieved if forced to resign. While no cases have yet been brought for unfair dismissal or stress, employment lawyers would no doubt relish the opportunity to test the law.