NEW POLL: What should we pay our MPs?

by Stephen Tall on August 24, 2009

Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack – the grandees’ grandee – isn’t alone in thinking MPs are under-paid. Today’s Times reports (under the oh-so-impartial headline, MPs hijack expenses inquiry with complaints and demands for pay rise – do you remember the days when newspapers reported facts, and let us form our own opinions?) that Sir Christopher Kelly’s Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry into Parliamentary standards has been

bombarded by MPs’ complaints about their miserable lifestyles, media intrusion, the inadequacy of existing allowances — along with repeated demands for a hefty pay rise. … A detailed analysis by The Times of hundreds of submissions shows that such views are far from exceptional, particularly among Conservative MPs who believe that they would be earning far more if they had never entered politics.

The debate has been well-rehearsed. Gone are the days of amateur MPs, men with means who could afford to regard being elected to Parliament as their public duty and/or an amusing hobby. Paying members of Parliament is an essential pre-requisite of a democracy of all the talents. How much they should be paid inevitably plunges you into the murky realms of envy, greed and compromise.

On a rational supply and demand basis, it is perfectly obvious that MPs should be paid not a single penny more. Political parties in winnable seats have no problem in finding candidates: more people want to do the job than there are vacancies available. It’s an employer’s market, and in this case the employer is the taxpayer: why should we cough up more cash?

Ah, yes, goes the argument: but you get what you pay for. Increase MPs’ pay and you will attract a better quality of candidate; attract a better quality of candidate and you will better MPs; and better MPs make for better democracy and better government. If only it were that simple.

The plain truth is that being an MP is not a job like any other profession, where vocational qualifications and relevant experience are essential prerequisites, not desirable optional extras. Headteachers, doctors, dentists, the police and armed forces: all those in public service who get ‘to the top’ have to have done their time, demonstrated their aptitude. MPs may well have done so (think Bob Marshall-Andrews, Vince Cable, David Davis), but they certainly don’t have to.

Besides, no matter at what level MPs pay is set – whether it was doubled or tripled – the chances are that a significant number of those we elect will end up earning less than they could outside Parliament; while a good many others will earn more than they could possibly ever dream of doing in the ‘real world’.

It’s inevitable: of course we want Parliament to include entrepreneurial businesspeople who know how to make money. But we also want people who have been successful working in shops and schools, on farms and in factories, in the law and in the home. How else can Parliament be truly representative otherwise?

In all the talk – in Lib Dem circles and beyond – about how Parliament can become more inclusive, most attention is focused on visible diversity, chiefly gender and race/ethnicity. We rarely ask the uncomfortable question whether the House of Commons will actually be a better national decision-making forum if a black solicitor from a middle-class background replaces a white solicitor from a middle-class background.

But back to MPs’ pay… The principle should be that you set a salary at a rate which is not so low it will deter the brightest and best from all sorts of walks of life from entering Parliament; but not so high that it will incentivise the greedy and incompetent to give it a go. The trouble is that each individual’s price will differ.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the current rate of MPs’ pay is currently about right: that £65k is enough to encourage public-spirited individuals to put up with living the distorted life of an MP, while not so much that it distances their lives too far from the majority of the public they are elected to represent. But what do you think?

Here’s the question: MPs are currently paid £65k per annum. Do you think they should be paid more than this, the same, or less in the future?

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  • Over to you to explain your reasoning, below…