Let's do what MPs want, and pay them what they're really worth

How to get the best bang for your buck out of MPs? Julia Hartley-Brewer has a radical proposal

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It is “quite unrealistic”, Sir Malcolm Rifkind insisted this week, to expect backbenchers to live on an MP’s salary of a mere £67,060.

This news may have come as something of a surprise to the many millions of British voters who somehow manage to scrape by every year on far less money.

Those words were perhaps the most damaging aspect of the latest “cash for access” scandal to hit Westminster, when Sir Malcolm, the Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea, was filmed (along with his fellow former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw) in a Channel 4 sting offering to take on highly paid consultancy work for a Chinese company on top of his MPs’ salary.

But while Sir Malcolm’s words may have been met with horrified screams in Number 10, just down the road in Parliament, MPs from all parties would have been nodding their heads in agreement with him.

They, like Sir Malcolm, take the view that they shouldn’t be forced to live on a pittance when they are worth far more than their Parliamentary salaries.

Many an MP would, in private, happily invoke the L’Oreal defence - “because I’m worth it” - when taking outside work, bumping up their (still lucrative) expense claims or accepting their promised 11% pay rise after the election.

The fact that MPs are already among the top 10% of earners in this country, or that they earn more than double the average salary of £26,500, doesn’t faze them at all because they believe they are really worth far, far more.

So isn’t it about time that we took MPs at their word and paid them what they are actually worth?

It is undoubtedly true that some MPs are able to earn far more outside Parliament than inside it – they earned a combined £7m in extra earnings last year – but it’s not entirely clear that every MP has the skills to command high earnings anywhere else.

So, instead of paying the same salary to all 650 MPs regardless, why don’t we simply pay each of them the same salary they were earning on the open market before they were elected?

If they were a high powered lawyer raking in £300,000 a year, then that's what they'd be paid as an MP. If they were a lowly TUC researcher on £25,000 then that would be their Parliamentary salary.

This would end the need for high earners to take a big hit on their household income to enter public service. It’s all very well wanting politicians to be dedicated public servants with a vocation, but would you take a 200% pay cut to be an MP? No, exactly.

At the other end of the pay scale, there would be no more “career politicians” with no experience of life or work outside politics, standing for Parliament after working as researchers straight out of university, because this system would incentivise them to get a “proper” job before becoming an MP. 

And not for just a month or two with a friendly lobbying firm before the general election, either. They would have to prove their income for at least a year before polling day to be entitled to the same pay after getting elected.

Yes, this would mean 650 MPs doing the same job while being paid vastly different salaries. But what’s so wrong with that? Footballers do it, actors do it, pop stars do it, and it happens in many other careers too.  

MPs say they want to be paid what they’re worth and this will do exactly that.

No one will have to take a pay cut to enter Parliament but neither could anyone ever again be accused of entering politics to get on the gravy train.

So isn’t it time we did what MPs say they want and start paying them what they really are worth?

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and commentator.