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Now is not the time to raise MPs' pay

There is a case for raising pay, but Brown cannot make it in these tough times

Is Gordon Brown really considering raising MPs' pay to appease their anger over expenses curbs? At a time when the Labour government has promised to impose the most punitive public-sector pay freeze since the dying days of the Callaghan government, this would be a disastrous decision.

There is a case for increasing MPs' salaries but now would be the worst possible time to make it. Simultaneous cuts in ministerial salaries would ensure the taxpayer doesn't lose a penny, but that would be overlooked entirely by the public. Such a move would give succour to the populist far right and risk alienating even more voters.

And yet, and yet . . . the pragmatic argument for raising MPs' pay remains persuasive. Harry Cohen, the left-wing Labour MP, was at least honest enough to describe expenses as a de facto salary increase (one that MPs, crucially, were not taxed on). And if our parliamentarians really want to spend £10,000 a year on gardening, then scaling back expenses and raising salaries would allow them do so at their own cost.

A future wage increase could be paid for by reducing the size of our bloated parliament. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 543 MPs. We, with a population of 61 million, have 646s. Indeed, only the Chinese have more MPs, and they have 20 times our population. David Cameron's pledge to cut the number of seats in the Commons by 10 per cent to 585 is doesn't go far enough. Reducing it to, say, 400 would allow those who remained to be paid more at no extra cost.

But that's not an argument to make in these straitened times, and Brown should avoid what would be a politically toxic move.