Leader: MPs should be paid more but the whole system needs urgent reform

There is a sense of widespread disenfranchisement from a political system that people feel is corrupt and rigged against them.

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The suggestion that MPs’ pay should be increased, during this protracted and bitter period of austerity, seems like an idea drawn from the Louis XVI school of public relations. Average wages are not forecast to return to their pre-recession level until 2023 and, after a two-year pay freeze, public-sector salary rises have been capped at 1 per cent until 2016. If any group is to be exempt from such privation, how many will agree it should be MPs?

After the expenses scandal of 2009, MPs ceded control over their pay to an arm’s-length regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). David Cameron declared at the time: “We say that from now and into the future, MPs should not vote on our pay, our expenses, our pensions, our terms of service . . . Isn’t that an essential part of restoring faith in parliament, in politics, in this House of Commons, that all of us care about?” What he did not anticipate was that Ipsa, unbeholden to public opinion, would suggest that MPs’ pay should rise, not fall. When the body publishes its recommendations later this month, it is expected to propose a 13 per cent increase in MPs’ basic salaries from their current level of £66,396 to £75,000. MPs also have generous pension allowances.

For fear of incurring the wrath of voters and the tabloid media, all three of the main party leaders have distanced themselves from the report. Mr Cameron has argued that the “cost of politics” must be reduced, Ed Miliband has suggested that any increase in pay should be pegged at 1 per cent and Nick Clegg has described, with his usual verbal elegance, the prospect of a rise as “potty”. Some MPs have even suggested that parliament should strip Ipsa of its responsibilities in this area. Yet, privately, most recognise the case for reform. A survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov on Ipsa’s behalf found that 69 per cent thought they were underpaid, with an average salary of £86,250 proposed.

Any assessment of MPs’ pay must begin by acknowledging that, by historical standards, they are not underpaid and that they already earn vastly more than most of those they represent. In 1979, MPs were paid £9,450, the equivalent of £40,490 in real terms. Their pay has since risen by more than 50 per cent, compared to an average increase of 37 per cent. The median full-time salary in the UK is £26,312, putting MPs comfortably in the top 5 per cent of earners.

Yet if parliamentarians have less cause for complaint than some suggest, the case for an increase in their pay remains a compelling one. The average MP now works 69 hours a week, excluding travel, with much time spent on constituency casework. British members are paid significantly less than their counterparts in Japan (£165,945), the United States (£108,032), Australia (£120,875), Italy (£112,898) and Canada (£99,322) and less than the average GP (£88,920) and far less than the typical BBC executive.

Should MPs’ salaries remain frozen at their current level, the result will be an even narrower political system, the preserve of the trust-fund class, the wealthy and the entitled. It was in an attempt to avert this fate that David Lloyd George introduced an annual stipend of £400 for MPs in 1911, describing it is an allowance for those “who cannot be here because their means do not allow it”.

Today, for those without inherited wealth or lucrative business interests, the obstacles to becoming an MP are becoming more formidable. As the former Labour general secretary Peter Watt recently wrote of parliamentary selections, “If you can’t afford to take a couple of months off work, pay for accommodation and travel, abandon your family and pay for your own materials you are screwed.” Add to this the estimated £10,000 cost of running for parliament and higher pay begins to look like nothing less than adequate compensation for what is or should be a hugely demanding job. It was this consideration that led Commons officials to encourage MPs to treat their expenses as a de facto second salary, creating the conditions for the scandal uncovered in 2009.

If an increase in pay is to be sold to the public – and it will have to be at some point – it will only be acceptable as part of a wider set of measures to improve democracy and accountability. In return for an increased basic salary, MPs should relinquish any significant outside interests and devote their full attention to legislation and to their constituents (many of whom are in desperate need of it). The bloated House of Lords, whose 760 members are able to claim a tax-free daily allowance of £300 for “clocking in”, must finally be reformed and replaced with an elected senate. All 92 hereditary peers should be abolished. And all parties must give greater thought to how to enable more working-class candidates to stand for parliament, including the possibility of a public allowance for those without the necessary means.

Our politics are debased and our culture is hysterical. The public is no longer merely sceptical of MPs’ motives; it is cynical about them. And fewer and fewer people wish to become members of a political party. There is a sense of widespread disenfranchisement from a political system that people feel is corrupt and rigged against them.

If we are to have a democracy that is truly worthy of the name, it is time to recognise that we will need to pay for it.

The Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation