I have argued with several people over the past few days, all of whom have been ready to drag MPs over hot coals and flay them alive because of the 11 per cent pay rise MPs are set to receive. It is worth clarifying that – because of the knee-jerk reaction to the expenses scandal back in 2009 – the House of Commons has now entirely divorced itself of all responsibility for setting MPs’ salaries.
Parliament now spends a whopping £6.5 million per year on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the quango tasked with setting MPs’ pay and expenses for them.
I have seen several media outlets suggesting that MPs are ’about to vote themselves a pay rise’. This is simply untrue. The bizarre truth is that MPs will not vote on this matter. They have absolutely no right to do so and will have no choice but to accept the rise IPSA recommend.
Sure, I suppose individual MPs could, of their own volition, give the extra money to charity. I dare say both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet will make a collective repudiation of their unwanted pay rise. But they will receive one all the same, whether they want it or not.
I remember speaking out against all this back in 2009. I was pretty much a lone voice (I suspect I still am). The only commentators I recall opposing the creation of IPSA were Charles Moore in The Spectator and the late, much-missed Lord Rees-Mogg (father of Jacob) in The Times. Nevertheless, Gordon Brown’s Parliamentary Standards Bill hurtled through Parliament at breakneck speed and IPSA was born. The Act was amended the following year by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which granted IPSA responsibility for setting MPs’ salaries.
The constitutional reality of all this, was that it effectively curtailed parliamentary sovereignty and liberty. There is an old legal dictum – Res ipsa loquitur (‘the thing itself speaks’). IPSA can now speak for Parliament and, when it does, its word is law. IPSA tell Parliament what its allowances will be and MPs cannot vote it down, even if they want to. As the former Tory MP for Wells, David Heathcoat-Amory, commented; ‘It is the final achievement of the quango state’. Our elected lawmakers are now ruled by the faceless few.
Increasing MPs salaries is politically toxic. It was always unpalatable for politicians to be seen to award themselves generous salaries, which is why they fudged it for successive decades. To avoid these difficulties, and inevitable public obloquy, MPs instead chose to observe an unwritten understanding that they would cream their expenses instead.
This latest rise will cost the taxpayer £4.6 million. While there are simultaneous proposals to tighten up on MPs’ expenses and pensions, which would save approximately £2 million, it is unlikely to assuage public indignation at the additional cost of politics.
If we really want to reduce the cost of politics, we could save £6.5 million straight away by abolishing IPSA and restoring the power to those whom we elect to be democratically accountable for the cost of politics in the first place.
I should add that it has long been my view, controversially, that MPs should be paid more. The average MP works sixty-nine hours a week, excluding travel, with much time spent on constituency casework. Our parliamentarians earn significantly less than counterparts in Japan (£165,945), the United States (£108,032), Australia (£120,875), Italy (£112,898) and Canada (£99,322) and less than the average GP (£88,920) and far less than the typical BBC executive. If, for reasons of sour grapes and spite, the kind of people who comment on HuffPost articles are determined to keep MPs’ salaries frozen in time then that is fine. But the net result will be an ever-narrowing polity, the preserve of the privileged few.
Historically, MPs received no salary at all. This was changed in 1911 by David Lloyd George, who introduced the first annual stipend (£400) for MPs who otherwise could not take up their seats ‘because their means do not allow it’. Keeping in mind that it costs approximately £10,000 to stand for Parliament in the first place and involves endless travel, time off work for campaigning, accommodation here, there, and everywhere, flitting back and forth between Westminster and the constituency, never seeing your family (particularly as MPs are now discouraged from employing wives and children to work in their offices). This is hardly extravagant compensation.
It is easy, in these cynical times, to dismiss the job of an MP as basically one long stay at a country club and to throw around accusations of ‘snouts in troughs’ but the reality is that being an MP is a tremendously demanding job and, if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys. The idea MPs are motivated by greed does not, it seems to me, gel with the concurrent idea that tends to be bandied about, that most MPs are upper-middle class identikit clones, who all come from similar backgrounds (public school and redbrick university-educated). Logic dictates that such people could find far easier ways to make money than entering public service. Indeed, many of David Cameron’s Old Etonian ‘chums’ and Oxbridge contemporaries have surely gone on to earn six-figure, even multi-millionaire salaries in the City. The reality is that up and down the country some fifty NHS managers and 2,600 other NHS workers, 636 council officials, 172 civil servants and 9,000 other public sector workers, not to mention thousands of GPs, academy heads, and council chiefs, who all earn larger salaries than the man who is running the country. Being an MP is no money-spinner.
So, before we start tearing chunks out of our MPs, we need to ask what kind of democracy we want and whether or not we are prepared to pay for it.