What stops MPs doing their jobs well? It’s not their pay but their conditions

The average MP is understaffed, undersupported, lacks meaningful opportunities for workplace training and has little power.

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The news that more than 270 heads of charities are paid more than the Prime Minister has brought one of Westminster’ perennial debates - that over the pay and conditions of members of Parliament - back into the spotlight again.

One problem is that the term ‘charity’ in a British context is so broad as to be a useless comparison. In a British context, the category ‘charity’ encompasses the Wellcome Trust, a grant-making body whose highest paid employee manages the £25bn endowment which finances its work, most private schools, and the Royal Opera House. We can have any number of views about whether or not Boris Johnson is up to the job of being Prime Minister: but we can say with utmost confidence that he is not up to the job of being the music director of the Royal Opera House, running the Wellcome Trust endowment or, indeed, being the headteacher of Highgate School, all of which are charities where the highest-paid professional are ‘paid more than the Prime Minister’.

I also think the salary of the Prime Minister is the wrong starting point. Ultimately, the talent at the top of your organisation is primarily a consequence of your ability to recruit well at mezzanine level. In addition, across essentially every parliamentary democracy, ministerial salaries and the salaries of the Prime Minister are closely related to that of your common-or-garden MP. So if you increase salaries for MPs, you are doing so for the Prime Minister as well, sooner or later.

There is a useful set of comparisons to be made: is the salary of someone working at, as the headteacher of a state school, or someone near the top of a campaigning organisation like Dignity in Dying or the Countryside Alliance, or an NGO like WarChild or Save the Children better, on the whole, than an MP? And yes, for some of these, you are taking a pay cut to become an MP.

But I think we need to stop and think about organisations like hedge funds or big banks, where you can also ‘change the world’ with a better salary than that of an MP: there are plenty of incredibly impressive veterans of the world of finance in the Conservative parliamentary party still. So I don’t think that it is really a problem that a headteacher is taking a pay cut to become an MP.

But that is, of itself, indicative: we have a pretty solid proof point that ‘pay’ is not the central reason why people decide, actually, they’d rather not be an MP. I think it’s the other half of the equation - the conditions of the job - that are worth thinking about. (There are a number of other issues around the cost of becoming an MP, but that is a different question, and one that is not fixed by increasing the salary once you are an MP.)

Would I take a pay cut to become the chief executive of a campaign I really cared about? Yes! Would I take a pay cut to become an MP? No! Would I become an MP if it didn’t involve a pay cut? Also no! Would I advise anyone I knew in that position to do the same thing? Why not? Because from observing the work MPs have to do up close I am struck at just how hard we make it to do that job well.  To the general problems of the British workforce - expensive and inadequate childcare provision, poor transport links, and so on - we have added on top a truly mind-boggling set of restrictions on staff and an allergy to professional development.  An MP with a seat outside of London can spend just £179,330 on their entire staff budget. A London MP gets a meagre £20,000 more. To put that into context, the Countryside Alliance spent £1538503 on staff in 2017, while Dignity in Dying spent £571,611 in 2019.  Neither has a particularly large staff. Persuading someone to leave these organisations to be an MP is, I would suggest, not the problem: but persuading someone to leave these organisations to advise a backbench MP is. Small wonder that one of the things a defeated Conservative MP told me they liked most about the new job in 2018 was that they could ‘hire properly’.

In a given parliamentary session, MPs have to scrutinise legislation, question ministers and select committee witnesses, and assist their constituencies. That means that in any given parliamentary session they need to be able to understand and explain large swathes of legislation across whole areas of public policy, act as advocate for their constituents, and prepare themselves for parliamentary sessions whether as a backbencher, a frontbencher, a member of a select committee. Hire someone who is a a serious expert in any one of the fields an MP might need to be across, let alone someone who can organise the demands of their office, or run their constituency offices, and they have already swallowed up a large chunk of their staff budget.

It’s fashionable to deride the quality of MPs we have, but far and away the biggest problem they face is that we expect them to be generalists: while refusing to provide them with anything like the level of resource to be effective generalists. While there is some professional development available for MPs, as one MP recently observed to me, the official position of Ipsa, the body which sets staff budgets, is essentially ‘we’ll pay for all the professional development you desire, but we won’t let you hire anyone to give you the time to do any of the professional development stuff’.

On top of all that, individual MPs do not have very much power when the government of the day has a majority of significant size. Pay is a superficially attractive problem if you want to improve the quality of our legislature. But it is improving the conditions MPs work under that would actually have the biggest impact: not least because people might just discover that actually our existing MPs are not so bad after all.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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