If we don’t want our MPs to become “little Englanders” with no experience of life beyond our shores then it is not unreasonable to expect them to travel. But as today’s examination of the £1.5m of free foreign trips that MPs have taken in the last two years shows, something is not quite right with our current system.
The first problem is that it is entirely self-selecting. Any MP can take any number of trips, anywhere in the world, and at whatever cost someone is prepared to pay. There no system in place to regulate it.
It is one thing not to be a little Englander, but as the Nadine Dorries case illustrates nicely, it is quite another to disappear from Parliament to spend weeks being filmed in the Australian jungle.
And our examination shows she’s not the only one prepared to travel. One MP on our list spent four months out of the country on various foreign trips, another one has been away for two and half months, and even David Miliband, while promising to put his South Shields constituency first, spent 47 days out of the country on paid-for trips, albeit mainly taken when the House of Commons was in recess. (Although he could of course have spent that time in his constituency.)
MPs are primarily elected to look after the interests of their constituents both in the Commons and their constituencies and it is hard to see how such extensive foreign travel is compatible with that. If you’re Foreign Secretary fair enough – but not if you’re a backbencher.
The other problem is one of openness. The Independent’s exercise to collate the travel movements of our MPs took weeks of painstakingly cross-referencing using hundreds of pages of public documents. Through that process we were able to see which foreign governments and organisations were bankrolling MPs’ trips.
This type of research is not something a constituent or member of the public could easily do – even if they were so inclined. But it does reveal that there are certain regimes, lobby groups and companies that are more likely than others to extend largesse to our elected representatives. It is frankly hard to believe that 16 MPs would have chosen to travel to Azerbaijan or over 80 to Israel if the trips had not been funded.
So what should be done? No-one wants to stop MPs travelling or indeed accepting reasonable costs for doing so. But it would not be overly onerous to ask the parties they represent or the MPs to pay, and expenses regulator IPSA to draw up a code of conduct and police the system. This would help protect MPs from spurious allegations of impropriety as well safeguarding the wider public interest.
There should also be an obligation on organisations funding MPs to separately declare that financial support so that it is easy and clear to identify and monitor. If you knows who pays piper you can listen out for his tune.
Some might say the same argument should apply for journalists who accept foreign travel and write about their experiences. And that is certainly true. But that is a matter for their employers to police and maintain trust in the products that they sell.
With MPs we are the employers. And we should expect a better system.