Punch and Judy Pay

So its official, IPSA have finalised the 10% pay rise for MPs. In a politically toxic environment of austerity where public sector pay rises are capped at 1%, this has obviously provoked much ire. Already people have asked me to give my view on this, so I’ll split it up.

In principle:

Ideologically, I want my members of parliament as vitally important public servants, to be paid well. If I am on an passenger aeroplane, I want to know that my pilot is not coming in stressed worrying about paying the bills or putting food on the table; I want him focused on nothing but flying my plane well, and shepherding me to my destination. Extend my analogy to MPs, with the pressing issues facing the UK such as fifth column militancy, lacking productivity, economic imbalance of payments, foreign policy; the list goes on, and barely finishes. The last thing I want them to do is be distracted from these concerns because they are being underpaid, just so it can make the politically cynical feel better about themselves.

If you pay MPs good money, you will attract good calibre candidates from outside the current bubble. The sad reality is that in current public service the rich are the ones that have access to parliament, because they are able to take the pay cut and still fund often unsuccessful election campaigns, retry and then outspend their competitors at every level. The ones that get in that are not in this position rely so heavily on the party machine or outside lobbying groups that they find it very difficult to vote outside of these interests, and democracy suffers a heavily blow as a result.

People always attack politicians for being out of touch, not having done real jobs or not being reflective of the society they represent. However, if a vice-principle of a modern academy, which I would argue is about the minimum level of competency we should require for a political representative, is paid nearly as much as an MP is, what incentive is there for that person to quit their job and take one that is chronically insecure and whatever you might say, incredibly personally demanding.

To me, we should see MP’s pay increases as a social investment that we should be happy to cough up. With a headline cost of £4.5 million it might sound a lot, but multiples more have been wasted on defunct police computer systems, foreign aid to already developed countries and aircraft carriers with no planes. Maybe if we invested in MPs more, they might wield better results for us, and save us some of this waste.

In practice:

First things first, I want to take the edge off of the rhetoric about MP’s pay reforms:

  • The reforms will be effectively cost neutral to the taxpayer. As MP’s have had their expenses dramatically reduced and as part of these reforms, further restricted. This is one way the taxpayer will save money. Yes they are going to be paid more upfront, but a lot of the hidden costs to the taxpayer will now be their responsibility.
  • The reforms have also heavily reduced the public contributions to MP’s pension schemes and severance pay. It is another hidden cost that has been removed in favour of a more transparent upfront cost.
  • The reforms themselves were not made by the parliamentarians, they were made by an independent body called IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority). Many have accused MP’s of ‘voting in their own pay increases while caping the public sector’; it is just not the case.
  • The amount of MPs should, pending the legislation passing, drop from 650 to 600. Overall the bill for MPs will drop by the next parliament.
  • IPSA have also stipulated that from now on, MPs wages will rise by no more than average wages in the public sector. So this is clearly more of a restructuring of the system, that is now going to be followed by a much more regulated pay rise culture.

So in practice, I think these reforms don’t go nearly far enough towards making the role of MP an aspirational career choice for every day role models in society; as opposed to the victory lap for those privileged and idle.

To me, the reaction many MPs themselves have had to this, saying they are going to turn down the pay rise or give it to charity, is a sorry reflection on the state of our political culture. Why are many MPs signing up to these platitudes, well for the same reason MPs will do anything, because they think it will be popular…

The question voters are always encouraged to ask before an election is “are you better off than you were 5 years ago”. Ultimately, this ‘pay rise’ for MPs is actually going to ensure that they are much worse off than they were 5 years ago because of the removal of other parliamentary devices; the question I’m asking isn’t why are they getting a pay rise while others in the public sector aren’t, its why are they the only public sector role thats getting a real terms pay cut; and what this says about our democracy.