A ban on MPs having paid second jobs is to be considered by Gordon Brown as part of an attempt to restore public trust in politicians.
Support is growing among ministers for curbs on the traditional right of MPs to top up their £61,000-a-year salary with outside earnings after it emerged that 66 per cent of Tory MPs, 37 per cent of Liberal Democrats but only 19 per cent of Labour MPs have other jobs.
The figures are included in a confidential paper by Helen Goodman, the deputy Leader of the Commons, which discusses whether outside jobs should be restricted. The Independent understands that it includes three possible options for change – a total ban; a US-style earnings limit of 15 per cent on top of an MP's salary, and a partial ban, under which some outside jobs, such as paid directorships, would be outlawed but others, such as a regular national newspaper column, would be allowed.
A ban would be controversial and would be opposed by MPs – including some former Labour ministers – who have outside earnings. Many MPs argue that outside work makes them better politicians by giving them experience outside Westminster.
But Labour supporters of the move believe it would help repair the tarnished image of politicians after the recent controversies over their expenses. Although Labour would risk allegations of reviving the class war, the idea of creating a "dividing line" with the Tories over pay appeals to many Labour backbenchers. They accuse David Cameron of playing politics over the MPs' £24,000-a-year "second-homes" allowance by calling for a ban on it being used for furniture and fittings. They claim many Tory MPs use the payments to cover mortgage payments on expensive homes, while Labour MPs are less well-off and need to spend the money on fittings. Allies of Mr Brown said no decision had been reached but that the question of MPs' outside jobs would be in his in-tray as he draws up plans for an autumn fightback.
He will study a proposal by Chris Leslie, a former minister who ran his Labour leadership campaign last year. Writing in the Fabian Society's magazine published today, Mr Leslie says: "Our politicians need to set an example and act fairly at a time when ordinary people have such low expectations of the behaviour of elected representatives. This needs to go beyond salary restraint. MPs should serve their constituents first and foremost, regarding the taxpayer as their paymaster above all others...
"If MPs have excessive outside earnings from consultancies and directorships, then people perceive that they are diverted from the public interest – or worse, that they are exploiting their public status."
Sadiq Khan, a government whip, welcomed Mr Leslie's ideas last night. He accused the Conservative Party of "hypocrisy" and getting away with "blue murder" by giving the impression that MPs were paid a generous salary and expenses, without saying many Tories had up to four outside jobs and regarded their parliamentary salary as a top-up.
Supporters of reform say many MPs with outside jobs are among those with the worst voting records. But some ministers say it would be better to "do nothing" than to raise media expectations of a crackdown that might be difficult to fulfil.
What they earn... and who pays
David Blunkett, Labour, former home secretary
Up to £450,000. Column in The Sun and other media work.
William Hague, Tory, shadow Foreign Secretary
Up to £320,000. Directorships, after-dinner speaking and parliamentary adviser to the JCB Group.
Ann Widdecombe, Tory, former Home Office minister
Up to £305,000. TV appearances and advance of £100,000 plus bonuses for a third and fourth book.
John Prescott, Labour, former deputy prime minister
Up to £235,000. Industry speeches and several payments for his autobiography, Pulling no Punches.
George Galloway, Respect Party
Up to £150,000. Presenter on TalkSport and other media work.
Alan Milburn, Labour, former health secretary
Up to £115,000. Adviser on boards of PepsiCo UK and healthcare supplier Covidien; newspaper work.
Michael Gove, Tory, shadow Education Secretary
Up to £85,000. Media contracts including one for The Times for £65,000.
Menzies Campbell, former Liberal Democrat leader
Up to £80,000. Autobiography
Charles Kennedy, former Liberal Democrat leader
Up to £55,000. Speaking, seminars and articles.
Diane Abbott, Labour
Up to £41,896. Media work including co-presenting This Week with Michael Portillo.
Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat
Up to £35,000. Media work including "journalism for the Daily Sport".
Oliver Letwin, Tory, head of policy
Five directorships, figures not disclosed.