"In Parliament, I've seen grown men cry over MPs' expenses"

If you think MPs are over-paid, think again. An anonymous MP explains how a flat salary and little chance of ministerial perks cause misery over childcare costs and mortgage payments.

In the pig swill of Westminster something new is stirring.

After two decades of MPs arguing for more pay colleagues are falling over themselves to forego any pay rise, ever. Not now. Not in the future, but please let me keep my pension is the sotto voce subtext.

“I’m happy with my salary,” a headline screams. This young mum will soon learn that childcare costs when you work to midnight will eat it up. Hope she’s got an overdraft or a rich husband. Nick Clegg starts an inevitable Dutch auction by pledging to forego any rise. Easy for him now his rich wife doesn’t have to pay those private school fees after all.

There’s a sigh of inevitability from colleagues as each leader comes out to condemn any pay rise. They’re always first in the queue (we’d be hammered if he didn’t, said one advisor) these leaders with their generous Government salaries, rich wives and ministerial cars.

But this time less anger from the rank and file. And in a sign that the troughs of mud covered expenses have been well and truly emptied there is a palpable uncomfortable feeling about being paid more.

The impending election fills us with dread as candidates will be pressured to declare that they will forgo the pay rise. Easy for the candidate with no hope of winning. A different matter if you have a mortgage to pay. “It’s our job,” says one colleague plaintively.

Tory A-listers are still reeling. Many sacrificed good careers with prospects for a flat salary and little chance of a ministerial job. I’ve seen grown men in tears because of the system of expenses that pillories MPs and makes many afraid to claim.

Others say that you need money to do this job now, “I’m lucky I did well in a previous life so I don’t need to claim anything”, one told me sanguinely in the coffee queue. Not uncommon. And there’s the female MP whose husband gave up his job to do the childcare because it doesn’t pay him to work. Not uncommon with many families but most people imagine MPs can afford full time nannies. The reality is far from that for most.

The young families are struggling the most. If they have a London mortgage or rent (and as we spend half a week in London a number do) the maths just don’t work.

Bravely Mark Pritchard sticks his head above the parapet to declare that Parliament must not be just for the privileged. Multi-millionaire and hero of the working man Adam Afriyie has been brave (and rich) enough to repeat this for three years.

All parties unite in a bit of “why do we do the job” “how often do you think about giving up?” moaning. Well, there’s a long queue of people keen to take it on. Though in some seats the shortlists these days are very short. The reality check about the money and the prospects increasingly makes wannabes think twice. And many walk away.

Pritchard and Afriyie are right. This place must not become a place just for the privileged. Richer MPs will forego more pay because they can. The poorer will because they feel guilty. And this is why we set up an independent body to take the decision out of our hands.

There is one unifying cry – we created the monster that is now putting us  through this prolonged agony of a pre-announcement, a speech and then (oh wait for the abuse) a public consultation before any decision.

So we are to blame for a body which pays its communications official £20,000 a year more than MPs.

There is never a good time to increase MPs’ pay but doing a catch-up every five years will always mean it is too much. So why isn’t the salary linked to another job that the public understand? Should MPs be offered two thirds of a GP’s salary or three quarters? And while we’re at it let’s stop the lunacy that describes employing staff to respond to constituents as “expenses”. If anything underlines the other worldliness of Parliament, that does. 

Now read Eleanor Margolis explain why we need our MPs to be less "moaty" - ie professionals, not wealthy hobbyists.

 

The Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.