On MPs’ pay and summer folly

The leaders of all three major political parties, and most of their parliamentary followers, have responded with predictable horror to the recommendation of a 9% increase in MPs’ pay made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).  IPSA was created in 2009 by the Parliamentary Standards Act and is tasked with independently monitoring and controlling MPs’ expenses, pay and pensions. The 9% pay increase recommendation is just one of a number of proposals in a detailed and comprehensive report, ‘MPs’ pay and pensions:  a new package’, which (as its title suggests) sets out a carefully balanced package under which MPs would not only receive a 9% pay increase, but would also suffer significant reductions in their pensions, severance pay and allowances. Although these proposed reductions would not fully offset the proposed pay increase, they would reduce to perfectly manageable proportions the net cost of the recommendations to the taxpayer.

Yet with few exceptions, politicians and the media have focused in their condemnation of the IPSA report exclusively on the proposed pay increase, neglecting to point out that this is largely offset by proposed reductions in MPs’ other emoluments.  The BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, for example, has been shamelessly roaming the streets with a piece of paper announcing the 9% pay increase proposal, showing it to random passers-by, and inviting them to express their shock, horror and dismay to camera.  This kind of shoddy journalism has had the obvious and predictable effect of inciting yet more public animus against the IPSA recommendations (or one of them) and against politicians generally.  Not only have MPs been demanding that the statutory power and responsibility of IPSA be ignored and the pay award vetoed (which, to be legal, would require a fresh Act of Parliament): some have been promising not to accept the award if it is granted.  This hair-shirt act is all very well for MPs with lucrative extra-parliamentary sources of income, or private wealth:  it does scant service to MPs, especially those with families, who have chosen to regard being a member of parliament as a full-time job.

Every MP, including even the party leaders, and every serious media commentator, knows perfectly well that for many years cowardly governments have held down MPs’ pay for fear of the wrath of the tabloids, playing on general public distaste for politicians. Independently calculated proposals for periodic pay increases have been regularly vetoed by equally timorous Labour and Conservative governments, with the result that MPs’ pay has fallen further and further behind that of comparable occupations, including that of parliamentarians of almost all similar countries.  The discreetly understood quid pro quo for this underpayment of MPs’ salaries was an explosion in MPs’ expense allowances, administered by the Parliamentary staff with the greatest laxity, as part compensation for inadequate pay. It suited everyone to turn a blind eye to this obviously unsatisfactory compromise, until a leak to the Daily Telegraph in 2009 of details of widespread abuse of MPs expenses exposed what had been going on, resulting in general public outrage, the termination of the careers of the worst offenders, and greater or lesser penalties imposed on most of the rest.

IPSA’s recommendations are meticulously argued and documented in its 74-page report. As far as I’m aware, none of its critics in Parliament, the government or the media has taken the trouble to dispute any of the report’s arguments, facts and figures underpinning its balanced recommendations.  In denouncing the proposed pay increase, and demanding that it should not be implemented, MPs and commentators are implicitly calling for a return to the bad old days when MPs and governments determined their own pay and allowances.  This almost universally negative reaction is based almost entirely on fear: fear of the tabloids, fear of a public opinion already prejudiced against politicians, and fear of their own inability to explain and defend the rational and statutory underpinning of the complex of recommendations in the IPSA report. As so often, the defining characteristic of those who govern and legislate for us is cowardice.

One postscript: IPSA says in its report that it found no evidence that inadequate pay for MPs had had a damaging effect on the calibre of candidates for election to the House of Commons. This seems to me the one element in the report that is wide open to question. It is far from clear what kind of evidence could be produced either to negate or to confirm the proposition that, in the terms of the cliché, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Better pay and conditions, better work practices, more reasonable demands on MPs’ time, a work description based on a rational interpretation of the Constitution, greater freedom from the tyranny of the Whips and local party activists – all these things could reasonably be expected to appeal to people of strong character, sound principles and a commitment to public service, and attract them to what should be regarded as the honourable profession of politics. Such reforms are no doubt mostly pie in the sky. One of them, decent pay and sensible pensions and allowances, is now on offer. All the signs are that it will once again be thrown away, the victim of prejudice, ignorance and cowardice.



4 Responses

  1. Clive Willis says:

    My thoughts precisely – though mine are perhaps more terse. In particular I found Nick Robinson’s street performance both infantile and a disgrace to his calling.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Clive. We’re in total agreement about the appalling Robinson (surely the mighty BBC could find a better political editor than this? it’s a highly prestigious appointment). Some of the television interviews with Sir Ian Kennedy, the IPSA Chair and Chief Executive, have been especially obtuse, repeatedly pursuing lines of enquiry long after he has disposed of them. I should however have exempted the Guardian from my strictures on media coverage of the issue. It has published a fair and balanced summary of the salient facts and figures, sufficient to enable one to arrive at a reasonable judgement without necessarily having to read all 74 pages of the IPSA report. Unfortunately its editorial recipe for a solution — pay MPs more but at the same time reduce the size of both chambers of parliament — is pure wishful thinking.

  2. Rob says:

    It’s the timing of the recommendation that is so toxic. And the press would have a field day – wouldn’t it. 
    The responsible press will rightly compare the MPs’ office cleaner’s minimum wage to the MP’s proposed seventy-five thousand. 
    But the main point is that a sitting MP in a marginal seat may be committing political suicide by accepting an increase especially if up against a well-heeled mischief-making opponent.
    Anyhow, many millions of dedicated people in the public and private sectors don’t come close to earning sixty-six thousand and they still nurse, teach, build bridges, find cures and don’t drive the banks into the ground. And they really do sometimes do it for “peanuts”.  
    Thanks for the blog,

    Brian writes: Thank you for the comment, Rob. As Sir Ian Kennedy, the Chair and Chief Executive of IPSA, has been saying in numerous media interviews, it’s never “the right time” for MPs’ pay to be brought up to the level that all the evidence justifies — which is why government after government over the years has funked approving the recommendations of all the independent Salary Review Boards, all of which have always recommended increases in salary. The result has been that MPs’ pay has fallen further and further behind that of comparable occupations (and in my view a consequence of that has been a steady fall in the average calibre of MPs). It’s worth reading the relevant chapters of the IPSA report on this.

    I agree — and say in my post — that if the IPSA recommendations are brought into effect, there will be uproar in the media (there already is), and MPs in marginal seats will feel vulnerable. But that’s what happens when governments and parliamentarians allow themselves to be intimidated by ill-informed public opinion and surrender to prejudice. If they had any leadership qualities and spine, they would be taking every opportunity to point out that the law gives IPSA the power to decide their pay, and that under the law IPSA’s final decision is not subject to government approval or veto; that by any standards, MPs in Britain are dismally underpaid, e.g. in comparison with parliamentarians in other countries and with other similar occupations here; and that the result of this is that many MPs are forced (or at least tempted) to supplement their incomes by finding extra-parliamentary appointments, at the expense of their work as MPs.

    As for comparisons between an MP’s salary and that of his office cleaner, even after the pay increase recommended by IPSA the ratio will be far smaller than that between senior executives in the private sector and their office cleaners. There is no objective way to decide what is the correct or acceptable gap between the two: in the end it will be decided by a combination of factors including the market, the competition, the availability of better paid jobs and social legislation designed to protect the low-paid.

    The short point is this. If, say, Marks & Spencer or Sainsburys were found to be significantly under-paying their employees (which I am not for a moment saying they are) and getting away with it because of high national unemployment and the difficulty of finding alternative employment, you and I would unreservedly condemn them as bad and avaricious employers. We, the British voters and taxpayers, are the employers of our MPs, and enjoy the benefits of their work, however cynical some of us may be about it and them: how can we justify our repeated refusals to pay them properly at the levels repeatedly set objectively by independent assessors?

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    You have probably read about our corruption scandal in Spain. The situation is very complex but a part of the problem is that politicians are not paid enough. Luis Bárcenas, the PP treasurer was collecting illegal donations and using them to make cash payments to top party officials, which was illegal in the case of ministers — and Rajoy got money when he was interior minister. By doing so, Bárcenas was building up a power base with people in his debt and he is now using blackmail to call in those debts. I am not saying that all would have been sweetness and light otherwise, but the fact is that people who felt that they were underpaid were susceptible to corruption.
    I have seen British media reports of this fuss but haven’t followed them closely. It seems to me, however, that the media are following their agenda, which is to usurp the power of parliament by influencing public opinion directly, bypassing the constituti0nal process. This seems to be very much so in the UK but is a growing trend in other countries as well, including Spain.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. I agree with your comments. It’s well documented that UK MPs were virtually advised to fiddle their expenses, or at any rate to interpret them with reckless ingenuity, on the grounds that this was the accepted compensation for not being properly paid. No excuse, but clear motivation.

  4. Rob says:

    I accept that there’s never a right time but, just now when public sector workers get 1% while MPs are awarded a headline figure of 9%, that really is foolish, insensitive and likely to provoke outrage.
    I was interested to read Peter Harvey’s Spanish experience. I’m not sure that I agree that it is the [British] media’s agenda to “.. usurp the power of Parliament by influencing public opinion directly ..”.  Many of us detest some of our rabid rags but we cannot contemplate an alternative to our relatively free press.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. On the timing of the publication of the IPSA proposals, please see para 21 of the report (nb hyperlink to it in my post above). On the role of the press, I’m inclined to agree with Peter Harvey that the UK press has largely deserted its role as purveyors of news, and turned itself into a rag-bag of propaganda sheets — although I agree with you that this doesn’t amount to ‘usurping’ the role of parliament.