As someone who was an MP during the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009, the last few weeks have felt eerily, and depressingly, familiar. The integrity of those who serve in Parliament is once again leading the news, and not for the best of reasons.
On Saturday, I had a lovely day out in North Shropshire – rolling countryside, picturesque villages... and of course a parliamentary by-election before Christmas. What better reason to pay a visit?
The by-election is happening because Owen Patterson, the former Conservative MP for the area, resigned recently and so there is now a contest to elect a new MP. The by-election will take place on December 16 so, as someone once said about something else, it'll all be over by Christmas.
What won't be over by Christmas though is the ongoing concern that people have about whether their MPs should have second jobs.
Owen Patterson resigned after the commissioner for standards judged him to have broken the rules over lobbying. MPs are not banned from taking second jobs, but they are banned from taking paid lobbying jobs. In other words, you can't, for example be paid by a company and then go and lobby government to do business with that company. Owen Patterson did that and that's why the commissioner found against him.
The bigger controversy was that the government tried to change the rules after the fact so that Mr Patterson wouldn't face punishment. But this has opened up a wider debate about whether MPs should take second jobs at all.
Recently it was UK Parliament Week which gave me the opportunity to go into a range of schools in my patch. Many of the young people asked me what a typical week looked like for an MP. The short answer is that I spend half my week in Westminster voting and speaking in Parliament and lobbying ministers on behalf of my constituents. I then spend the other half of my week in my constituency meeting residents, doing surgeries, engaging in local campaigns and generally being immersed in the community.
So MPs have a role which is part legislator and part local advocate. Some MPs choose to do the first bit and not so much of the second. In those cases, an MP would I guess have time to do a second job, but if you do both halves of the job you really won't have the time at all!
Of course, if you are a minister – or indeed a party leader – you do end up in effect doing two jobs and I can tell you from personal experience, if you attempt to work hard at both of them, it can take its toll.
But here we are talking about MPs taking paid work outside of their parliamentary duties. In these cases I would make an educated guess that those MPs who are able to find the time to do a second job have constituencies that we might call 'safe' – in other words, their constituency habitually gives their party a large majority at elections. The safer an MP feels, the more likely they might be tempted to increase their income by doing something else as well. Maybe that's something we should seek to put right?
So how should Christians think about this? First, let's make sure that we form a view based on facts.
Every financial gain that an MP gets outside of their parliamentary salary has to be entered into the register of MPs' interests, so you can very easily find out how your MP approaches this issue.
Second, let's be slow to jump to conclusions and let's pray for wisdom and discernment so that we can judge between what is right and wrong. It's not necessarily morally wrong for MPs to have second jobs even if on balance we think that they shouldn't.
We've spoken to many politicians on A Mucky Business podcast, all seeking to live for Jesus in their very different ways. For those Christians who are MPs, the reality is that our job can help to open doors and make things happen – and it's one of the most rewarding parts of the job – but it should always be done on behalf of constituents, not corporations paying for the privilege. Of course, as Owen Patterson found out, there are already strict rules and standards that govern that kind of thing.
When it comes to second jobs that do not currently break the rules, what then? Ecclesiastes 9:10 tells us that 'Whatever our hand finds to do, do with all your might'. I'm not sure that I will be doing that if I'm off looking for other things to turn my hand to. God has put us in Parliament, and there we have the opportunity to love our neighbour and to serve God. That, then, is the thing we should be doing with all our might.
In Titus 1 we read that Christians, especially those in leadership positions, need to be above reproach. When MPs make choices about how they spend their time, it's vital then that we remember that we are being watched, that our witness will be affected and that we will most certainly be setting an example. Whether it is a good or a bad example is up to us.
Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017. Tim is also the host of Premier's 'A Mucky Business' podcast, which unpacks the murky world of politics and encourages believers around the UK to engage prayerfully. You can find it on your chosen podcast provider.