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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    I think it should remain at about the same level.

    But far more importantly, I think MPs should not get a say in how much they are paid. Their should be independently allocated, and they get what they are given. No vote. In fact I think they shouldn’t even get a say in whether they get a say.

    And I increasingly thing that this rule should go for every aspect of their working life. How they are elected, when the House is sitting, what biscuits are provided at the select committees. It should be up to an independent body to make the decisions, and major changes are voted on in a referendum.

    by Duncan Stott on August 24, 2009 at 9:40 pm. Reply #

    I want every single person in Parliament to be earning less than they would in industry. That way, there will be no people in Parliament who have money as their first priority. Increasing their pay will not attract a better quality of candidate. It will just attract a greedier one.

    Enough to live comfortably and not be tempted by modest bribes. No more.

    by Andrew Suffield on August 24, 2009 at 10:02 pm. Reply #

    Peg it at 3 times the national average wage and leave it there (about £65k co-incidentally). If MPs want a pay increase, they’ll have to enact policies that improve the economic lot of the UK working population as a whole. Shifting taxes from earned productivity to unearned privilege would be a good way to start.

    by Andrew Duffield on August 24, 2009 at 10:09 pm. Reply #

    Peg it at the basic rate of JSA – the one for the under 25s – plus the average single room rent for their constituency and council tax share based on a shared house in the appropriate, probably lowest, band. They are to be found legislating at each budget that this sum is enough money for other people to live on and that these circumstances are adequate for other people to live in. Given that, they should not be eligible to a penny more for their income.

    Any outside incomes from outside jobs should draw draconian penalties in line with the way doleys are penalised for moonlighting.

    Their expenses, however, should be receipted and open to a much higher total spend.

    by Jen on August 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm. Reply #

    Now there’s a thought – maybe we could just starve them out. Save a lot of messiness of a revolution.

    I always remember Dave Nellist boasting that he would only take the same as an average worker’s wage in his Coventry seat. And I think there is something to be said for linking MPs’ salaries to their constituencies’ prosperity somehow. Maybe not 100% linked – maybe a “base” salary of about half what they get now plus one times their constituency median income (pdf) or some such formula.

    by Jock on August 24, 2009 at 11:27 pm. Reply #

    I think they should still get a say in their own pay – if they can’t be trusted to set their own pay how can we trust them with the nation’s laws or finances??

    I’m happy for their salary to go up if they reduce the number of MPs because that will obviously lead to increased workload. I also don’t have any particular objections to increases/decreases in general – MPs should set their own salaries and if they get it wrong voters should be able to initiate recalls. Expenses should be restored to only those incurred as part of the role of an MP – not including campaigning, buying toasters (unless it’s for the office) or moat cleaning, again unless it’s for the office 😉

    There seems to be a lot of outrage sloshing around at the moment for various things. I’ve moved on to the indifferent acceptance stage, who’s with me?

    by Letterman on August 25, 2009 at 12:13 am. Reply #

    I say we tie MP wages to wages in a suitably senior area of public service like head teaching or GPs. Such people should not have to take a pay cut on election to Parliament, but the public sector can’t compete with the commercial incomes of people like Alan Duncan.

    by DannyMackay on August 25, 2009 at 8:57 am. Reply #

    If it was a 9-5 permanent job, I’d say 45K or so was about right. Factoring in the uneven hours, need for dual location for MPs representing distant constituencies, and job insecurity, and 65K seems about right. The housing expenses system was obviously a really stupid idea, so should be replaced by a fixed rate amount for those MPs whose constituencies are far enough away to warrant a second home, the level should be the minimum annual cost of renting a one-bedroom flat in inner London, obviously if they want more than the minimum they should pay for it for themselves.

    by Matthew Huntbach on August 25, 2009 at 8:58 am. Reply #

    If you tied MPs to GPs you would be looking at a hefty pay rise the amount most GPs can earn at the moment.

    by Simon on August 25, 2009 at 11:42 am. Reply #

    Why should MPs get paid a flat rate decided in advance anyway? Why can’t their pay either be set in some sort of market-driven way and/or a performance-related way? It is surely not beyond our ken to come up with a system for paying our representatives in a way that actively incentivizes them to do their jobs properly.

    by sanbikinoraion on August 25, 2009 at 12:26 pm. Reply #

    The current level is high enough.

    They are in, what, the top 5% of salaries in a society where the gap between the highest and lowest is already too high.

    There is no reason why MPs should expect to have the highest salaries.

    And another thing – are these Tories who are arguing that salaries should be higher to attract ‘better quality’ candidates telling us which of their colleagues they think are ‘low quality’ at present?

    by Liberal Neil on August 25, 2009 at 12:30 pm. Reply #

    An argument against pegging to the average wage of constituents is that those MPs with the biggest caseload (and hence the busiest) are often those areas with the lowest wages. And I suspect that will always be the case. It’s also a bit unfair if the boundaries of a constituency are changed with the result that suddenly you get a drop in salary through no fault of your own.

    I entirely agree that MPs shouldn’t set their own salary, but if anyone thinks that will lead to a lower income they are wrong. Just look what happens with councillors. Most independent renumeration panels recommend a higher allowance than councillors feel they are able to take.

    by Anders on August 25, 2009 at 12:53 pm. Reply #

    Their wages should be set by an independent panel, in the same way that councillors’ allowances are. The panel could be drawn from people who have previously served on local authority members’ allowances panels.

    Anders is right that councillors don’t always take the allowances in full though and there needs to be some mechanism to make the recommendation mandatory. In Cambridge, I don’t think we have ever taken our recommended rise in full, as there is always the budget for everything else you want to do.

    by Amanda Taylor on August 25, 2009 at 1:47 pm. Reply #


    Why should MPs get paid a flat rate decided in advance anyway? Why can’t their pay either be set in some sort of market-driven way and/or a performance-related way? It is surely not beyond our ken to come up with a system for paying our representatives in a way that actively incentivizes them to do their jobs properly

    We have such a system. It is called “election”. After a period of at most five years their performance is reviewed, and if they fail to meet the requirements of their performance review team, they lose their job. It is quite brutal because the requirement is that anyone else may apply for the job and the performance review team must agree the MP is better than anyone else who chooses to apply.

    Apart from this, it is important that MPs are left free to do their job as they wish and are not forced to follow patterns set for correct behaviour. I should imagine the party whips would very much like the power to be able to set performance targets.

    by Matthew Huntbach on August 26, 2009 at 8:49 am. Reply #

    Matthew, elections incentivize politicians to do things which will get them elected or re-elected, rather than the ‘right’ thing. Considering the mainstream media’s utterly distorting role in (mis)information delivery, I don’t see how you can effectively draw a parallel. I might think different if we had an honest, accurate and humble media, but we really don’t.

    I really think there is mileage in having some sort of system, which I have not completely formulated obviously, in which MPs get paid a bonus for a law they introduce (or repeal) having not only positive consequences, but the positive consequences they claimed it would have in the first place. It makes me very angry to hear, for instance, about the reclassification of cannabis to class B, when the number of people taking cannabis after its classification to ‘C’ actually went down. And, not coincidentally, the government had to wage a disinformation war claiming that modern cannabis is 25 times stronger than in 1990* in order to get the political cover to do so.

    I envisage a House of Lords (sortitioned) whose job was to scrutinize bills proposed by the commons and set the success criteria (based on reference to a written constitution, for example), and then any MP that voted ‘for’ a bill would, if it was successful, get a bonus of, say, £5000. This would hopefully provide, if done carefully of course, a strong incentive for MPs to ignore their whips and actually evaluate the evidence for a bill and vote according to whether they thought it was actually a good bill or not.

    (I am sure that there are plenty of criticisms that can be levelled at this approach, which I am happy to hear as I try and figure out whether this idea really is a go-er. Not that anyone would ever willingly introduce it, of course!)

    by sanbikinoraion on August 26, 2009 at 9:50 am. Reply #

    But who decides what is the right thing? Take one example. Labour want 50% of people in higher education, the Conservatives don’t. Who decides which is right, and how do you assess whether 50% in education has a desirable outcome or not?

    I’m with Matthew on this. The only way you can decide the performance of MPs is elections. The problem we have is that the electoral system we have means that some MPs have safe seats and are impossible to remove even if they are completely useless, and some MPs lose despite being brilliant just because they are in a marginal constituency.

    by Anders Hanson on August 26, 2009 at 1:26 pm. Reply #

    Anders,

    Firstly the principle would be that the reviewers would consider whether the bill was actually compatible with the constitution, which would be the start of it being a ‘good’ bill, and secondly making sure that the rewards are aligned with the statement of intent of the bill, in order to stop politicians claiming that the bill they are passing would do something good, only for it to actually do something else.

    Take the lowering of classification of cannabis; surely one of the reasons for doing so was ‘to reduce harm’, and in fact this worked as indicated by a reduction in use. To reclassify it up again to ‘send a message’ that drug-taking is unacceptable is bad lawmaking, and if the MPs’ bonuses hinged on whether reclassifying cannabis back to ‘B’ would *actually* reduce harm, you can be sure that they would have made a lot more of a fuss about making sure that the bill was going to do what it claimed that it was going to do.

    Even if one cannot come up with some objective ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – as you rightly indicate, positions vary! – I think that we would be in a much better position if all laws had to conform to some sort of constitution, and that the measures proposed in the bill were actually right for the task in hand. This would mean that politicians would have to be more honest about what they were supporting and why, which would make deciding whether to re-elect them a bit easier!

    by sanbikinoraion on August 27, 2009 at 1:52 pm. Reply #

    Sorry we seem to be suggesting very small numbers. Is the idea to cripple the Tories by paying too little for them to get anyone to stand?

    How about a weighted average of their last 3 years earnings and then increase that by inflation + 5% per annum?

    That might incentivise older candidates and disincentivise professional politicos.

    Second home needs funding as lets be honest this could be a lifetime job – “its not a career secondment” but funding should not deliver a profit.

    by Man on a Train on August 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm. Reply #

    A difficulty in deciding on MP’s pay is that MPs fall into two roles: back bench or governmental. Although an MP in government is paid more than one on the back benches, few prospective candidates on the hustings know where they will end up, so the pay rate offered has to be based on the assumption that any MP when elected may be given governmental responsibility, even though fewer than 20% of them will end up in that role. The result is that the back bench salary is inflated beyond what it is worth, while the salary for a governmental post is deflated.

    by Guy Patterson on August 28, 2009 at 11:07 am. Reply #

    The current MP’s salary / pension /.free travel already puts them in the top 3% of salaries in the UK.

    This is already too high for a job that requires no qualifications,experience or skills,if they are unhappy then they should take a second job (they have plenty of time) or leave as there are thousands of others that would be happy to take their cushy jobs.

    by john zims on August 30, 2009 at 7:23 pm. Reply #

    they have plenty of time

    If you think an MP has plenty of time then you have clearly never seen how much work the majority of our MPs do.

    by Anders Hanson on September 1, 2009 at 2:28 pm. Reply #

    Nobody has mentioned MP’s supplementary incomes. Most MPs are intellectually capable of holding a second job, so why not redraw parliamentary hours to allow them to do it effectively.

    MPs with a large casework load will argue that they don’t have time for a second job. So create a two tier salary system: median national wage if an MP has a second job, and double it if they don’t.

    by Charlieman on September 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm. Reply #

    Which then brings in the interesting point of what is a second job?

    Howard Stoate MP is a GP. That is very much a second job, and yet most people would probably sympathise when he says that continuing as a GP is useful in helping him to keep in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

    But what about, say, a novelist. We have had plenty of them. Robin Cook, Rupert Allason, and if she wins next time we may end up with Louise Bagshawe? Is that a second job? If they spend a lot of time on it then it probably is. But how much time do they have to spend for it to be a job? What if they also enjoy writing as a hobby (plenty of people do) but then publish the book when they have finished. Is is still a second job? Why should they not be allowed to earn money from it, if it is good?

    How about sitting on the board of a company? How many hours do you have to spend doing it for it to be a second job? Many people would say that it is wrong for them to be involved with running a business when they should be working as an MP. Some think it keeps them in touch with the world outside politics and helps encourage people who have had successful careers to get in to politics. Being on the board of a company might not involve much work a month and could easily be done in an MP’s personal time. Say it’s a family business and they just happen to have inherited a place on the board through their shareholding, surely it’s only reasonable to allow them to still have a connection with the firm even if they have no day to day involvement in running it?

    I am playing devil’s advocate here. But it maybe proves how the issue of deciding on MPs salaries and allowances is far from simple. We need a simple solution to make sure people have confidence in it, but how we will ever achieve that is incredibly difficult.

    by Anders Hanson on September 2, 2009 at 1:14 pm. Reply #

    I think they are paid too much. They are supposed to be intelligent people so they should be able to budget on less. This is my idea of adequate pay:

    The amount the lowest paid of those whose job can involve dying for us
    +
    The amount allowed in housing benefits to the equivalent sized family on social security
    +
    Second class raill travel to and from their constituencies and parliament and any other places they HAVE to go to carry out their work as MPs.

    If others can manage on these amounts then surely the brightest and best can. Or are they not really that clever?

    by Judith Brooksbank on September 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm. Reply #

    I agree that the “second job” / “not second job” question is difficult particularly in relation to speaking engagements, writing books and non-executive directorships; if anything, it seems to me that the guy continuing as a GP is worse than all of these other things because, presuming that he is dedicating a reasonable number of hours to it (even a day a week), constituents are not getting as much MP work out of him compared to a non-executive director who spends a day a month setting strategy for their company.

    Also, I think that it is normally simplistically presumed that an MP who is a GP is good, because doctors are good, and MPs who are directors are bad, because companies are evil. I don’t think that’s fair at all, since both in this case have a specific interest in legislation that will personally benefit themselves.

    Personally, I would prefer that MPs are required to spend x hours per week doing their job as an MP, and whatever they do in the time outside of that, so long as they do their MP-hours, is their own business; much like in any other job.

    by sanbikinoraion on September 2, 2009 at 2:29 pm. Reply #

    […] A month ago, Lib Dem Voice set up a new poll for readers asking the simple question, MPs are currently paid £65k per annum. Do you think they should be paid more than this, the same, o… […]

    by LDV readers say: pay MPs more! on September 25, 2009 at 3:34 pm. Reply #

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