It’s probably safe to assume that the general public holds prison officers in higher esteem than Members of Parliament. Although the warders’ illegal strike this week cannot be condoned, I have some sympathy for their relatively modest pay demand. However I want to use this column to make what many will consider a much harder case in arguing for a large salary increase for MPs. In my view, their basic pay should be raised from just over £60,000 to around £100,000, and MPs with additional paid responsibilities should receive proportionate increases.
Last December, it was reported that both Labour and Conservative MPs had written to the Senior Salaries Review Board arguing such a rise was needed to bring them into line with senior civil servants and GPs. It is certainly true that in recent years, MPs’ pay has fallen well behind senior public sector workers, especially in health and education. Average pay for general practitioners in England is now £102,000. The MPs’ aspiration to be paid at such at level is entirely reasonable.
MPs are subject to a high degree of public derision and opprobrium, but in their jobs they undoubtedly carry a work-load and weight of responsibility which at least equals that of a family doctor. It must be galling for MPs that thousands of civil servants in Whitehall are paid more than they are, not to mention vast numbers with non-jobs in quangos and local government.
Large swathes of middle-class professionals in normal jobs would be unable to sustain their families’ standard of living on 60K. MPs’ salaries should be able to provide a good though not lavish standard of living and also reflect the additional strain placed on family life by the nature of the job. A spouse or partner spending much of the year on their own will typically have to shoulder extra parenting duties, limiting their scope to continue working full-time themselves.
Some may argue that MPs’ relatively low basic salaries are balanced by generous pensions and expenses. Certainly MPs’ gold-plated pensions offer some compensation, but their generosity reflects the precarious and often short-term nature of parliamentary careers.
However this large increase in salaries should not be granted without the taxpayer receiving full value for their MPs. If you work full-time, does your job allow you to take significant time off during working hours to do other paid employment? No, neither does mine. Yet one of the main consequences of MPs’ relatively poor pay is the increasing trend for them to seek additional paid work to make ends meet.
The quid pro quo for paying MPs realistic salaries should be an insistence that they work full-time and undertake no other paid work. Far too many important debates are sparsely attended. When it is sitting, Parliament is now not only deserted on Fridays; a large chunk of MPs are also nowhere to be seen on Thursdays. The cumulative effect of this moonlighting is compromising the quality of our democracy. No matter how able an MP is, he or she obviously cannot fully bring their talents to bear for the good of the country if they are working part-time.
MPs regularly remind us how demanding their job is. Having observed many at close hand, I agree that properly done, the job of MP is more than full-time. The privilege of representing 70,000 people in the Commons, along with making and scrutinising legislation, deserves to be more than just another element of a portfolio career. Outside interests can help MPs bring new skills and interests to parliament, but these can be equally well acquired through cultivating a ‘hinterland’ or volunteering as through paid work. And if financial considerations were not at stake, a better balance is likely to be achieved between MPs’ parliamentary lives and their outside activities.
After initial resistance, I believe that most MPs undertaking extra paid work would accept this new regime, especially if it were accompanied by the significant increase in salaries suggested. Some in very high earning professions might choose not to pursue or continue in a parliamentary career as a result, but I reckon that would be a price worth paying to secure the undivided time and commitment of MPs. The salary increases would cost several tens of millions of pounds to implement. I am sure the Taxpayers’ Alliance could advise on which one or two quangos could be wound-up to pay for it.