THE COLLEGE which provides training for civil servants has just introduced a new course. ‘From Backbencher To Minister’ aims to give new ministers the skills to manage a department with hundreds of employees and a budget of billions.
Some might think this is long overdue. It might also seem reasonable to expect prospective MPs to have a minimal grasp of the issues on which they may vote – decisions that can in some cases be literally a matter of life or death.
Currently, no qualifications are required to become a Member of Parliament. The advantage of this is that, theoretically, people from any background can aspire to be an MP, bringing their various life experiences with them. But it also means that we have some MPs who can express dogmatic opinions which have no basis in fact, or make decisions based on ignorance or misunderstanding.
We probably all have examples of this. Recently the MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell, displayed a complete lack of understanding of how Universal Credit works, despite the fact that 35 per cent of children in his constituency are living in poverty, and any decision on Universal Credit will have a substantial impact on their lives.
Perhaps the time has come for us to expect MPs to have a basic grasp of such crucial issues. Perhaps it’s time for potential MPs to sit exams. These exams could be made up of two parts, with the first part set on a national basis, and entrants required to pass it before being allowed to apply to be a Parliamentary candidate.
This could include questions on how the UK (and the devolved nations where appropriate) fare on various measures in comparison to other developed countries. How much do we spend on health, education, or the military in comparison to similar countries? How many doctors and nurses do we have per person, and how does this compare? How do we compare on climate action and sustainability? There would also be questions on social security, with a requirement to know roughly what claimants receive, and how they qualify to receive it.
So, a good range of questions on the state of the nation and how it compares to other countries. This would ensure that prospective MPs have a realistic sense of the UK, its strengths and weaknesses, and a basic grasp of life on a low income. Marking should not be too harsh – the aim is not to exclude anyone who doesn’t have extensive detailed knowledge, but to eliminate candidates who have a delusional or skewed view of the UK and its place in the world.
The second part would test a potential candidate’s knowledge of the area they seek to represent, with a pass required to become a candidate. This constituency exam would be similar to the national one, but with a local focus. A prospective MP should be expected to know certain basic facts about a constituency: the median income, the cost of renting or buying a home, the numbers on a housing waiting list. how many children qualify for free school meals, the basic demographics and the type of job vacancies and salaries being offered.
If a person objects to being tested on such basic knowledge of an area they seek to represent, that lack of humility would be an immediate red flag. We would not tolerate it in any other profession, and it’s surely time to stop tolerating it in our MPs. We have a network of centres for people to sit a theory test before they are allowed to drive a car, so it should be perfectly acceptable and manageable to run a similar system for prospective legislators.
An MP’s job carries a great deal of responsibility and power, and anyone who is serious about doing it properly would surely have no objection to putting in a relatively small amount of effort to prepare.
In order not to put barriers in the way of potentially good candidates there would need to be lots of flexibility – good quality reasonable adjustments for people with differing abilities, expenses and free childcare available etc. The exams could be set, marked and kept up to date by an independent body like the UK Statistics Authority, or perhaps the Civil Service College could be involved. As for the financial side – it would seem to be an excellent use of a relatively small amount of public money, to ensure that MPs who vote on decisions involving huge amounts of public money have a grasp of the basic facts.
All these logistics would need to be worked out, but given the frequent sight of MPs making decisions on the basis of lamentable ignorance, perhaps we have given amateurism enough chances.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden