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The Number of MPs Should Be Halved

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Britain has too many MPs.

We have 650 MPs to represent 62 million people. By international standards, that's a lot of MPs to represent not many people.

Germany has 46 fewer MPs but a population that is one third bigger. Japan has 176 fewer MPs but about double our population. Russia has 196 fewer MPs but nearly five times our population.

Of course, many individual MPs work hard. But there are some rather difficult questions to be answered about their quality on aggregate.

In the last few years there have been scandals about MPs misusing their expenses, keeping more houses than they need, and paying relatives to do no work. At the same time, we are entitled to ask how much MPs actually do for their money. Most of the year, Parliament does not sit. Last year, the Parliamentary year contained 165 working days. And even during working weeks, many MPs are only there between Monday and Wednesday evening.

If Parliament were a business, the solution would be clear. We would cut the numbers of people employed, bring more talented people in, and then give them the resources to get on with doing a better job.

The same solution is right for Parliament. Only whereas a business could do it at a stroke, Parliament must do it by getting the incentives right.

The Coalition suggests removing fifty MPs by asking the Boundary Commission to abolish fifty constituencies, mainly in Wales and inner cities. This would have the added advantage of putting a roughly equal number of electors in each constituency. (If you can vote you are an elector; if you actually do vote you are a voter). At the moment, some constituencies have many more people in them than others. The Isle of Wight, for example, had 108,253 in 2004, while Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly known as the Western Isles, has only 21,884.

This is a step in the right direction. But it still looks like pretty weak stuff. Their proposals don't go far enough. Why should we stop at a seven per cent reduction of MPs? Why not halve the number. Does anyone really believe that we need more than 323?

Firstly, it would be more cost-effective. It would save taxpayers just under £100 million.

Secondly, it could actually be an opportunity to enhance democratic representation. The last decade or so has seen more opportunities for decisions to be taken at a level closer to the people such as mayors and national executives. Halving the number of MPs is an opportunity to devolve more power to local areas, which would encourage more people to get involved in decision-making. After all, at the moment, election turnouts are low, and many people feel no connection to their MPs.

Thirdly, it would be popular. In a recent YouGov poll, a 54 percent of people agreed with a proposal to reduce the number of MPs, as against only 23 percent who disagreed.

The next task would be to bring more talented people into politics. We need to attract MPs who have more life experience and have had a job in the real world. Halving the number of MP places available would ensure that parties pick the best candidates to run, and a political version of market forces means that the most qualified and competent MPs would remain.

The remaining MPs should also be offered a higher salary. As any recruiter knows, this is quite simply the only way to attract more experienced candidates from other, higher-paying professions.

Finally, the remaining MPs should be given the resources to get on with doing a better job. To that end, their staff allowances should be increased -- no longer should lower-ranking MPs rely so heavily on interns -- so that the increase in casework that comes from having fewer constituencies could be dealt with effectively.

The most talented MPs will survive and the most talented candidates will become MPs. In time, Parliament will emerge more effective, leaner, fitter, and fairer.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

Follow me on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)