MPs are paid to fear inflation and not care about unemployment

Want to know what an MP cares about? Look at their pay packet.

FullFact.org has put together highlighted a chart made by IPSA showing MPs pay in real terms over the last hundred years. Since 1911, when it was introduced at a rate of £400 per year, the pay of elected representatives has fluctuated between six times, and one and a half times, the average wage in the UK. It currently sits a little over two-and-a-half times higher:

As a reminder of what we've historically considered a fair wage for MPs, it's useful, especially in the context of the continued debate over IPSA's decision to award a pay rise. We can see, for instance, that the vast majority of MPs, elected in 2001 or later, are earning less than they every have before in real terms. But for the 100 or so oldest MPs, in office since before 1992, they've had the experience of being much poorer.

But there's something else which is worth noticing, which is how badly hit MPs were by the inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1962 and 1976, MPs pay fell from 4.5 times the average wage to double it; and that despite two pay rises in the interim period.

Everyone earning a salary is hit by inflation to some extent. But MPs are in the category of workers who are hit hardest. They don't have the annual pay rises typical in many industries; they have no ability to negotiate individually in response to changed circumstances; they can't leave for a better paid job without completely switching industry; and so on. And that's even before you take into account the unique peculiarities of their situation: asking for a pay rise due to inflation is a bad idea if the inflation is seen as your fault to start with.

So MPs, as a class, actually have more to fear from inflation than most other people. (To a certain extent, offloading the job of setting their pay to IPSA has made things slightly easier, but as the latest fuss shows, a pay rise is still a PR disaster.) And that explains a lot about the hawkish attitude of most MPs.

Conversely, MPs are also the one group who have no (direct, financial) reason to fear recession or high unemployment. Their pay is set free of market forces, and, while they might not see much of a rise in lean times, they can be pretty certain it won't be cut in nominal terms. That's a comfort few employees have. And they are absolutely certain that, no matter how bad the business environment, they won't be let go because their organisation can't afford to keep them on.

All of which means that the economics of being an MP are directly aligned with a tendency to over-value inflation, and undervalue growth, in setting priorities for the country. In so far as the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney can fight that consensus, he should; but IPSA could have a role to play as well. In deciding what to do with MPs pay, they could look at a wider economic index of how the country is doing. That way, MPs would know that getting their dinner relies on everyone else getting theirs.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.