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10 December 2013

How to drain the poison from the MPs’ pay debate

Let's talk sensibly about this problem: here are two ways we could demystify the debate about how much we pay our elected representatives.

By Jonn Elledge

I know, I know, we’re all sick to the back teeth of comment pieces arguing that MPs have their faces in the trough/aren’t really paid that well when you really look at the numbers, actually [delete according to taste and income]. But we have the same arguments every time this topic comes up, and I’m not sure our inability to talk sensibly about these things is conducive to good government. So here’s a couple of ideas on how we can drain this swamp before we all go mad and start bashing our heads against things.

There are two reasons why the debate about MPs’ pay is so clouded. One involves genuine challenge that Members of Parliament face, and which the general public don’t always appreciate; the other involves the political class having its head up its own backside. Helpfully, Jack Straw has spelt them both out for us in a single quote.

“What I’m concerned about,” he said over the weekend, “is to ensure that the pay is sufficient to attract people from modest backgrounds who have not inherited a house, who don’t have family or personal income, but who are going to make a career out of politics.”

Now Straw is standing down at the next election, so doesn’t stand to benefit from the pay rise currently on the cards for 2015: this isn’t naked self-interest at work.

Nonetheless, that quote is built on a pretty dubious assumption: that people from “modest backgrounds” won’t be satisfied with an income of only £66,000. Pay of that sort puts you in something like the top 2 per cent of earners: the idea that someone on a “modest” income would find it off-putting is just barking.

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The reason ideas like this persist is because MPs don’t really compare themselves with “modest” people: they compare themselves with doctors and bankers and newspaper editors. Moving in that kind of world, it’s very easy to lose sight of what a normal income is.

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So – let’s make sure they can’t. IPSA’s recommendation is that, after this latest rise goes through, salaries should be indexed to average incomes for the next five years. Let’s make this permanent.

If MPs’ salaries are, and are known to be, 2.8 times the average income, then it gets a lot harder for politicians to cling to the notion that they’re embarrassingly low. At the same time, though, it gets harder for the public to complain about future rises. If MPs’ pay has gone up, it’s because average pay had gone up too. More to the point, if average pay drops, so would MPs’. Politicians would thus have an extra motivation to ensure that incomes were growing. We’re all in this together.

The other odd thing in that Straw quote is the bit about inheriting property. This isn’t quite as silly as it sounds: regional MPs do have two sets of housing costs to contend with, which most of us don’t. If we want people who aren’t rich Londoners to go into politics, which I assume we do, then this is a problem it’s worth solving.

But with a bit of effort we could fix this one too. The Prime Minister gets a nice central London home as part of the job. Why shouldn’t the rest of the Commons? You wouldn’t need 600 Downing Streets, just a few hundred flats within a few miles of Westminster. (My friend Jim, from whom I’ve shamelessly nicked this idea, suggests we don’t even need that: just convert a couple of hotels into a mass dorm room.)

MPs who want to live elsewhere would be quite welcome to do so – they’d just have to pay for it themselves. All this would involve a one-off cost, but it’d put an end to accommodation expenses scandals over night.

And if the population of the Commons complain that the new government housing doesn’t offer them enough space? That they want a family life? That they can’t possibly hope to afford a place for the kids, when they’re paid a mere three times the national average income . . .

. . . then at that point, maybe they’ll finally notice the housing crisis and get serious about fixing the bloody thing.

All this is what is known in the corporate world as “alignment of interest”.