Give MPs more benefits, says diversity report

Paid leave and open primaries put forward to encourage better mix of parliamentary candidates

Candidates seeking to become MPs should have a statutory right to time off work and state funds to cover loss of income as part of proposals to make parliament more diverse, says a report.

The Government would also fund US-style "open primaries" to allow ordinary voters to participate in selecting parties' candidates for Westminster. This, the Institute for Government says, would stop MPs in safe seats being effectively elected by dwindling numbers of elderly party members who are unrepresentative of their constituencies.

The report, from a respected think tank, comes as the first subsidised parliamentary intern scheme starts.

The scheme, supported by the Speaker and with private funding worth £400,000, will allow 10 candidates to spend the next nine months working for MPs, including Ed Miliband.

Unlike most interns – who are not paid – this group will earn £15,000 a year and have been chosen not for their qualifications but their interest in politics and their diverse backgrounds.

One is a 25-year-old who fled to Britain as a refugee from Liberia at 17 after being caught up in the civil war. Another left school after GCSEs to be a joiner before being made redundant nine months ago. Two others in their 50s saw the advert in local job centres.

"Normally someone like me would never be considered to work in Parliament," said Alan Kean, 54, who was brought up in a mining village and left school at 15 with no qualifications.

Politicians are concerned at a lack of diversity among MPs. Around 35 per cent of MPs went to fee-paying schools against 7 per cent of the current school-age population. There are only 27 Black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs compared to 75-80 non-white MPs that would signify a representative House.

The Institute identifies two significant barriers to addressing the situation. The first is the financial cost. It is estimated that the average costs of being a prospective parliamentary candidate can reach £41,000 over a four-year period. The report suggests candidates should have a statutory right to time off work as well as funding for a means-tested bursary to cover expenditure. It also argues that the narrow selection process is detrimental to democracy.

Less than 1.5 per cent of the electorate belong to a major political party so a fraction of voters in most constituencies select parliamentary candidates. The Institute proposes state funding for "open primaries". But this will prove controversial as open primaries can cost £40,000 each – equating to £26m per party for every seat in Westminster.

But one of the new report's authors Rhys Williams said: "It will only be through bold action that the problems of low public participation in the political process and an unrepresentative Parliament can be addressed."

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