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MPs don’t deserve a punishment beating over pay

14 July 2013

Four years ago I was in a windowless room within the parliamentary estate. I was working in David Cameron’s opposition office at the time and a number of Tory political advisers had been corralled into said room to go line-by-line, page-by-page through the expenses forms for all Tory MPs. This was in the middle of the corrosive drip-dripping of expenses stories, and British politics had hit its nadir.

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time living and working in SE Asia, which has enabled me to peer at the Westminster ant farm with a bit more perspective. On my last visit back to SW1, just over a month ago, I found it gripped by the Mercer and Yeo lobbying scandals. Disproportionality so, I thought.

The existence of the stings, the absence of real lobbyists, the unrestricted publicity, the public opprobrium, the politicians scrambling for action – all these were signs of a healthy democracy, not a diseased one. Reaction to the cure was mistaken for the ailment that was being expunged. Inevitably, even if this could be considered a victory for our political system, it was yet another defeat for public faith in it (an Ipsos-Mori poll in the aftermath found that merely one in five Brits believe that MPs generally tell the truth).

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So it is with Ipsa’s recommendations this week – solid process, terrible PR. This wasn’t a case of MPs dreaming up a huge salary for themselves during austere times. It was proposed by an organisation most of them have come to hate, as part of a wider package that barely increases their overall remuneration, certainly not to the levels seen in other parts of Europe. Yet sections of the media and public are mustering up a level of ire that in most other countries would only be reserved for a scandal involving sex and several zeros – not what is effectively a restructuring by parliament’s HR dept.

An important bit of context has been absent from the sometimes shrill coverage of MPs’ pay. It’s this: British politicians are amongst the most honest and hard-working in the world. Hop on an easyJet to Spain and you’re in a place where corruption is second only to unemployment in the public’s concerns – you can’t imagine it being in the top twenty in the UK. That is not to say that this salary increase should be considered a deserved reward for a job well done. But neither should this review be used as some kind of punishment beating for bad behaviour, however therapeutic that may be.

Of course, if we get complacent about the little things, then bigger things could follow – the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing our democracy. We’re good at flagellating our politicians to keep them in check. Britain’s acute sense of fairness combined with its lack of deference is one its greatest traits. I’m just starting to worry that we enjoy the act of flagellation too much.

Samuel Coates is a political writer and consultant.

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Show comments
  • Smithersjones2013

    Not if they refuse the pay rise and demand the board of IPSA is sacked along with the idiots (if different) who thought this whizzo wheeze up. They could also scrap IPSA and demonstrate they can put self restraint before self-interest by then voting to tie MPs pay to average earnings without an initial pay rise. On the side if they do that, they will have saved to taxpayer the cost of another ridiculous deranged Quango..

    However, if they conveniently put their hands up and say ‘,nuffin to do with me guv, we can’t change it but thank you very much’ (surreptitiously accepting the pay rise) then frankly there will be an awful lot more visits to this site:

    As for your protestations in their defence. MPs are so honest they couldn’t trust themselves to behave honestly and honourably regarding their pay and expenses and had to give up the responsibility to a third party. As for hard-working well in case you hadn’t notice the country is up to its neck in debt being in the middle of a financial crisis. It doesn’t matter how hard someone work’s if they are incompetent then their value is not very high and unlikely deserving of a pay rise. You do not reward failure!

    Oh and one last thing in a healthy democracy such decisions would not have to be abdicated by elected representatives to unelected appointees because they would have sufficient integrity to put self-restraint before self-interest and not allow such a situation to arise.

    If was you Sam I’d give up the day job and go back to being the gopher at Conhome……

  • Ben

    Solid process? Bah! Lazy process!
    IPSA looked at what its peers were doing around the planet and then copied their homework! Plagiarism! Ever hear of non-pedestrian British innovation? or indeed avoiding hypocrisy?
    Whilst the Coalition is pursuing performance-related pay for the public sector, MPs have little integrity unless they arrange to receive performance-related pay themselves: pay linked (directly) to that of the average British voter. And if that means senior civil servants’ pay is similarly linked to the pay of the average British voter then the idea seems even stronger.
    And that is just one idea that IPSA should have considered.

  • Rockin Ron

    British politicians are amongst the most honest and hard-working in the world.

    I hear this assertion trotted out a lot but never with any evidence. It is just a lazy comment without any substance. Even if it were true, so what? No one forces a person to stand for Parliament. They choose to stand for office, so they should accept everything that goes with the role. Most people would love to have the salary, terms and conditions and recognition that MPs get. If you want proof of that, look at the short listing process for selecting MPs; many more apply than required, so there is a huge demand.

  • foxoles

    MPs salaries used to track average wages – now nearly triple average wages.


  • Nick Saunders

    In principle it is probably a good idea to give MPs a payrise. For all the public furore, Parliament doesn’t vote itself too many rises on a regular basis. The final amount suggested isn’t too bad either when you take into account the pension, golden goodbye and other changes.

    The problem is essentially PR, but also of the timescale. I think the public would be less hostile if the rise was brought in gradually, say over a period to end in 2020, with the benefit cuts to be phased at the same rate.

    Suggesting a 10% rise over 2 years when everyone but the top 1% is facing pay freezes or cuts is frankly idiotic and IPSA should have known better than that.

    Perhaps the solution is to have MPs, including Ministers and the PM on a civil service payscale. That way their pay goes up at the same time and at the same rate as everyone else.

    • Samuel Coates

      I don’t get the impression that the post 2015 timeline has really been noticed, would a 2020 one? It might make some difference but the topline payrise headline will be unchanged

      • Nick Saunders

        Given the media’s desire for headlines that grab attention irrespective of the merits of the actual story, you are probably right.

        However, it would be an easier rise to justify if it were phased in over a longer time period. A steady increase between 2014 and 2020 would amount to roughly a 1.6% increase per year.

        Looks better than 10% in two years at any rate. The media may well scream about the final figure, but, if the 2014 and 2015 increases as they were planned to be before IPSA announced, were left in place and then continued, by 2020 MPs’ would be on just under £72,000 anyway.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    The main issue should be that MPs for all their manifest wonderfulness are paid from the public purse. Public employees are rightly subject to wage restraints at the moment (well most are and all should be) thanks to debt and deficits so large as to be beyond the comprehension of peasants like myself and conditions for which were created in large measure by MPs

    There is never any shortage of applicants for the job which has got easier over the years thanks to the outsourcing of much of their workload to Brussels so we will have no problem filling vacancies. If the payscale is insufficient to attract the intellectual titans required we will soon find out and can take action. Meanwhile a rise below inflation would seem justified.

    • Samuel Coates

      Understandable point on public purse, it’s clearly a badly timed reform. Not sure you’re right to say the job has got easier due to Brussels though- UK legislative work keeps chugging along, but the internet has increased the workload of MPs significantly

      • the viceroy’s gin

        We get it that you’re a paid apologist, laddie, but no need for you to completely debase yourself. Have a bit of dignity. Get ahold of yourself.

      • Hexhamgeezer

        MPs’ offices certainly have an increased workload, requiring staff who are good researchers and can churn out quality responses to constituents – but MPs?

      • 2trueblue

        They volunteered for it. The average back bencher is not exactly stretched in comparison to someone on a similar salary in the private sector. What we need are less MPs and boundary changes. Thanks to the LibDums we did not get that.

        Watching MPs on their mobiles… twittering….. whilst they are in parliament…… they are not impressive.

    • monday night

      large numbers of applicants for a job doesn’t mean that recruitment is fine. If you were recruiting a maths teacher and only people who couldn’t add up applied you’d want to readvertise. Only in politics is that option not available. You have to settle for what you can get irrespective of the calibre that shows up with a form in their hand. And the 650 odd current MPs may or may not be representative of the best talent you can get for £65k. There are brilliant, talented and selfless MPs but there are also time servers and a bunch who got in on bugging’s turn as a stoic of the conservative association or the preferred son of the unions. and there are brilliant talented people outside who rule it out for family or financial reasons who’s talents we lose. In the private or public sectors if you thought you weren’t attracting a strong enough talent base you’d look at the incentives – maybe not for the immediate incumbents but for the 2015 intake and the survivors among the current cohort. But it would be sensible to get the news out now so that those still considering their options might give it more thought.
      Of course what would make it more attractive to the public would be combining more pay with, say, term limits. Two terms unless you were selected as a serving front bencher and thus preserved by your usefulness to your party. If you don’t make your mark in any other job within ten years you’d expect to be moved on. And if you do – you’d expect to move on, and up,
      I’m not holding my breath.

  • Deutscher

    “British politicians are amongst the most honest and hard-working in the world.”

    Did I really just read that?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Yes, and that was the giveaway that we were being trolled.

      • Samuel Coates

        Please do name a bunch of countries where they are so much better…

        • the viceroy’s gin

          No need to dodge, laddie. You’re the one who must support your trollish declaration.

          • Samuel Coates

            Honesty is difficult to quantify but corruption would be one key indicator, and UK is in top 20 in the world for that

            Hard work – most MPs work far longer hours than average UK jobs. You might not consider it all “real work”, but it’s certainly more than what I’ve seen in other countries.

            • the viceroy’s gin

              So tied for 17th and falling, is it? That’s what you’re trolling us with?

              Does the 17th place tie include updates for the tens of thousands allowed to die via NHS corruption, soon to be ignored and passed over by corrupt MP’s?

              Sorry, laddie, but you’re just another paid hack apologist. Have some dignity. Withdraw, and stop trolling this site.

              • Samuel Coates

                No taxpayers have been harmed in my career so far. I answered your question, will you answer mine?

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Sorry, lad, but you bring nothing valid to discuss. Trolls are to be scorned, not coddled.

                  You’ve earned your way in the bubble today, lad, but normal people are watching you here now, and having to avert their eyes. Show some self respect and dignity. Move on.

            • Rockin Ron

              Hanging around Parliament is not working long hours. Turning up is not the same as work. Also, factor in the extended ‘holidays’ that MPs enjoy and you can see why most have the spare time to have more than one career. For many, being an MP is a part time profession.

  • starfish

    “British politicians are amongst the most honest and hard-working in the world”


    After all, hardly any of them ever go to jail

    Tim Yeo, Lord Deben, MacShane etc are all shining examples of the virtue that characterises British politics

    Maybe if they were held to the same standards of other public servants the general public would not begrudge their pay rise. However, as they are apparently getting it when everyone else is on a wage freeze (or effective decrease given inflation), and there are no signs of them, giving up lucrative second jobs, retainers, consultancy fees or exposure to lobbyists it is hardly surprising there is a singular lack of support.

    Except for people like you – maybe you and they should get outside the M25 a little more – and not just to their second home in the west country

    • Samuel Coates

      Yes – they went to jail. Which is more than can be said for the vast majority of corrupt politicians in the world, most of whom make these guys look like nuns.

      And if you think I’m the type to have a second home in the west country you don’t know me very well…

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Are you kidding, lad?

    Bend them over the carronade.

    Make them kiss the gunner’s daughter.

    Ask for volunteers, to administer punishment. I’m sure you’d get quite a line up. Sell those spots, and you can make it a profit center.

  • HookesLaw

    The pay rise when it comes will be worth £6000pa not the 10k+ that the headlines say and according to the Spectator when you take the removal of other benefits into account it is worth about £700 pa to a MP.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    Yes, they do.

    • telemachus

      How so?
      Remember most doctors, dentists, judges and colonels earn twice as much.
      What we need to ensure is that there is a level playing field for pay to promote objectivity
      It is significant that the Tory PM did not follow up on Ed Milibands fair and firm suggestion to limit pay from second jobs
      So Rhoda I want full engagement from MPs and for that I am prepared to concede a fair wage

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