Last year's seemingly endless allegations of 'sleaze' in public life threw a hard light on MPs' links with business. But in the often overheated debate that ensued - with its imputations of graft and impropriety - a less highly charged but closely related matter invariably escaped attention: the steady decline in the number of MPs with useful experience of business.
Figures from the Industry and Parliament Trust, a non-partisan body that seeks to promote dialogue between the worlds of business and politics, show just how sharp that decline has been. In the immediate post-war period, approximately half of the new arrivals at Westminster came from a background broadly defined as 'business' (either boardroom or shopfloor). By 1979 that figure had fallen to less than a third, and by 1992 to 21%, its lowest level in recent times. Meanwhile the incidence of new MPs lacking all experience of the world outside politics climbed from 10% to 29%.
Does this matter? Ken Minton, chairman of the Industry and Parliament Trust and chief executive of chemicals company Laporte is in no doubt. 'The situation is clearly getting worse and worse,' he says. 'If - as was recognised in 1977 when the Trust was set up - there is a need for MPs to have a better knowledge of industry, then today that need is greater than ever.' Minton points to the increasing weight of business-related legislation. In 1992-93, for example, almost half the 229 Bills considered by Parliament had some direct bearing on business. 'By definition, the quality of legislation passed by Parliament can only be enhanced if those who enact it have direct experience of the areas in which they legislate.'
Minton's concern is echoed inside the House. 'Parliament undoubtedly suffers from a lack of understanding of the processes of wealth creation,' observes Richard Caborn, chairman of the all-party Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, the main parliamentary conduit between government and business. Caborn, who spent over a decade as a senior shop steward in the steel industry, criticises many of his fellow MPs for their weak grasp of industrial affairs.
The short-term solution to the current dearth of politicians with broad industrial experience is to ensure that new MPs at least have an opportunity to learn. The Trust offers five-week study programmes on attachment to companies. Thus David Wilshire, Conservative MP for Spelthorne who entered the Commons in 1987 after a career spanning academia and small business, signed up for a fellowship with ICI in order to rectify 'a large gap in my knowledge of big business'. Wilshire believes strongly that 'If you do arrive as an MP without a knowledge of business then you must first recognise the need to go out and educate yourself as quickly as possible.' The longer-term alternative is to encourage more broadly based candidates to stand for election. The current Parliament does contain several MPs who have held senior positions in major public companies. Geoffrey Robinson, Labour MP for Coventry North West, was formerly chief executive of Jaguar Cars, for example, and is the founder (and current chairman) of TransTec, the West Midlands engineering company. And David Lightbown, Conservative member for Staffordshire South East, was previously a director of Hampson Industries.
However, two obstacles typically stand in the way of those who take this route: the unreceptive attitude of the major political parties towards older candidates with business experience (the average age of new MPs is 35), and the largely negative stance of companies towards any employee who might become politically involved. To counteract these attitudes the Industry and Parliament Trust has launched a 'political service initiative' aimed both at companies (to make their personnel policies more supportive of politically-active staff) and at the parties (to adopt more business-experienced candidates).