To most people in this country, an income of £66,396, which is what an MP now gets, looks like riches beyond the dreams of avarice. As the Sunday Times points out in its story about MPs’ pay, the average wage is about £26,500, which means many millions of people earn less than that.
No wonder the man or woman in the pub concludes, on noticing that an MP earns three or four times as much as he or she does, that our legislators are only in it for the money. And we now discover that in 2015, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority wishes to award them an 11 per cent rise, which is again a much higher figure than most people can hope for, and will take MPs’ pay to £74,000.
When IPSA was given responsibility for MPs’ pay, this was said to be a way of stopping our legislators from voting to give themselves more money. But the idea that MPs will no longer be held responsible for how much they are paid is a pitiful illusion. They are responsible for setting up IPSA, and will not be allowed to wriggle out of that responsibility. Countervailing cuts in pensions are a good idea, but will have little effect on public opinion.
Here is a modest proposal for inclusion in the Conservative party’s next manifesto. One of the most popular policies pursued by this Government is the capping of welfare benefits at £26,000. The Sunday Telegraph today reports that dozens of claimants were receiving benefits equivalent to a pre-tax income of £70,000 a year – about what an MP gets. This information has been put in to the public domain in the justified belief that it will make the cap of £26,000 even more popular.
So why not extend the cap to MPs? Here is a measure which would do much to counter the damaging impression that the Tories only care about the rich. It would show they regard the privilege of serving as an MP as a reward in itself. MPs’ status does not derive from their pay, and their work should not be thought of as a job. Comparisons with head teachers, doctors and other professions are irrelevant.
Some will ask why MPs should be paid at all. But in an era of universal suffrage, it seems to me reasonable that they should get an amount equivalent to the average wage. A postman or postwoman ought to be able to run for Parliament without facing a life of poverty. What is unreasonable is for people to go in to politics in order to be able to live at public expense an upper-middle-class existence, with two houses, children at fee-paying schools, a pony in the paddock and all the other luxuries which so soon turn out to be essential.
An MP’s pay is already quite inadequate to sustain such a way of life. Hence the temptation to which some of them succumbed to try to do it on expenses instead. But if MPs want to live like that – and I do not pretend to be immune myself to the charms of such an existence – let them find some other way of paying for it. Part of the deal should be that they are encouraged to go on doing at least some of whatever they were doing before they were elected, whether it be dentistry or carpentry.
Another part of the deal would be that we could no longer expect MPs to attempt to justify their existence by bearing a heavy burden of case work, of a kind which ought to be dealt with by local councillors.
If any of the Tory party’s present MPs find that they are slightly less committed to the ideal of public service than they thought, they can stand down. One advantage of this proposal is that it might widen the range of backgrounds from which MPs are drawn.
It will be said that reducing MPs’ pay by about two-thirds will leave politics as the preserve of the rich. But hasn’t this already happened? How many working-class candidates made it to Westminster in 2010? The time has come to bring politics back closer, in financial terms, to the man or woman in the pub. Perhaps some of them could then consider employing their oratorical skills beyond the confines of the saloon bar, safe in the knowledge that their friends would not accuse them of being in it for the money.