Why it’s wrong to give MPs a pay rise

There was a surprisingly mixed reaction from commentators recently when it was revealed that around 70% of surveyed MPs thought they should get a pay rise of 32%. While most of us struggled to pick our jaws up off the floor in staggered disbelief, there were also those who seemed to think the MPs had a point.

According to the Telegraph it was “perfectly respectable to argue that MPs’ salaries need to be increased if the country is to attract the best talent to Parliament, and that the current level (on top of the heavy workload) is putting good people off”. And Blairite blogger, Dan Hodges, writing in that same paper argued with an apparently straight face that the only thing that was scandalous about MPs’ pay was that, at £65,738, it is ‘scandalously low’.

To be fair to the Telegraph, their editorial concluded that, whatever the arguments, it was ‘not the right time’ for MPs to get a pay rise when real-terms cuts on benefits are being imposed by the Government.

But even in taking that position, they were missing the point entirely. ‘Bad timing’ is not the reason why paying MPs approx 4 times the average income in the UK would be disastrous, (as well being unacceptable to most voters). It would be a disaster because it would mean that our elected representatives – whether they are members of the government, or ordinary backbenchers who serve on the committees that are supposed to hold them to account – would be even less able to identify with the lives of Ms and Mr Average than they are already.

The problem with the debate that takes place whenever MPs’ pay is discussed is that it polarises opinions between two basic camps:

  • those who don’t think very much of MPs, and, after the scandal over excessive expenses claims, see them all as a bunch of freeloaders, and
  • those who don’t think very much of MPs but who think the problem is that you only get what you pay for: “No wonder our MPs are mediocre”, they say, “when we pay them such a meagre salary.”

Rarely do I hear anyone make the glaringly obvious point that the more our MPs are paid, over and above average earnings, the less able they will be to do their jobs well, by definition: If we accept that a major part of an MP’s job is to understand and represent the concerns of their constituents, it makes no sense at all for our MPs to be living in relative luxury. It doesn’t give them a fighting chance of doing their job properly.

This becomes particularly relevant where MPs and Ministers can afford to ‘opt-out’ of using basic public services, choosing instead to use private healthcare, send their children to fee-paying schools and avoid public transport. It seems utterly obvious to me that only when our leaders and decision-makers are all dependant on the same public service provision as the rest of us will we see those services become the very best that they can be.

I am not saying that politicians, or people in general, are incapable of empathy or imagination. I’m just saying that, rather like trying to ‘feel’ someone else’s tooth–ache, it’s never quite the same as feeling it for yourself.

There is a world of difference between, say, knowing that some hospital wards are unsafe places for the elderly, or that discipline problems make some schools unsafe places for children – and actually having your own mum in a failing hospital, or your own child in a failing school.

The key difference is the degree of URGENCY you feel about doing something about it.

The same applies, of course, to living standards: If you’re able to live comfortably within your means and have a secure, warm home, you just might not be able to appreciate fully the desperation of a constituent who lives with her kids on a lawless estate and has no money left for the gas meter by mid-week.

It is this failure, by our politicians, to appreciate the day-to-day difficulties faced by ordinary people that is what so desperately needs fixing. It is what lies behind, for example, the almost criminally divisive pronouncements we have heard lately about ‘strivers and shirkers’ – or the government’s recent decision to restrict disabled people’s mobility payments to those who cannot walk more than just 20 metres (about the length of two buses).

So this is why MP’s pay matters. I’m not suggesting that all MPs should be forced to live in abject poverty – or even be forced to survive on the Minimum Wage (which often amounts to the same thing) – but I do think it important that their salary is closer to average earnings, currently £26,000 – and that they should have no second (or third!) incomes – if we are to have any chance of seeing them pass legislation that is based on reality.

To those who say that people with families and mortgages wouldn’t be able to afford to live on that salary, I would ask them to consider how ordinary people manage, and suggest that parliament might at last have an incentive to do something about the scandal of low pay in the UK, and the profits made by utilities companies and others at the expense of the consumer.

To those who say that we would not be able to attract the most able people to be MPs, I would say that even at current salary levels we do not attract the most able people, and I would question what motivations we consider to be desirable in a public servant: selflessness or personal greed?

I’m also sure that we all know some very highly qualified people who are currently finding it impossible to get work that in any way utilises their skills, and who would jump at the chance to do something of real value.

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We’ve tried a House of Lords – please can we try a House of ‘Ladies’?

It’s now widely accepted that our ‘male, pale & stale’ model of governance needs urgent revision. What has changed the debate recently is that it is no longer seen as an issue of ‘fairness’, or equality – instead, with the spectacular failure of many of the UK’s most important institutions (political, financial, media etc), the case for change is being driven by a recognition that we need to improve the quality of our decision-makers.

Paradoxically, just as this debate has been taking place, yet another attempt at reforming the House of Lords has been strangled at birth. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a bizarre contradiction.

As we begin the 13th year of the 21st Century, practically everyone accepts that the current Upper House – with almost 100 of its members still claiming their seats by birthright alone, and whose very name trumpets discrimination on grounds of gender and class – (I wonder how many men would sit quite happily in a House of Ladies?) – is, well… embarrassing.

And yet we can’t seem to raise enough passion on the issue to see its reform through.

Why be passionate?

In some ways it’s easy to understand the apathy around Lords reform: with the current Cabinet consisting of more millionaires than it does women, it’s easy to doubt whether simply making both Houses elected would change things very much..

…and how can an election possibly produce the levels of diversity that are needed, when women, young people, disabled people, those from BME communities and a whole range of occupational backgrounds are under-represented even on ‘long-lists’ of candidates? Something more radical is needed to change the public’s perception of ‘what an MP looks like’ before sufficient numbers from these groups will feel that they fit the profile.

Another factor in our complacency about the Lords has been the excellent job that many of our life peers are actually doing in the Lords. There’s an anxiety about throwing the ‘baby’ (effective legislative scrutiny) out with the ‘bathwater’ of patronage and lack of accountability.

A 21st Century solution

Surely, though, the anachronisms that are inherent within the Lords do these very peers and their work a disservice? And surely that House’s inevitable (and long overdue) reform offers us a unique and exciting opportunity to change British society in a fundamental way?

I’d like to suggest a solution to the present democratic deficit: lets keep two Houses of Parliament, but have one House for men – and one House for women. This would achieve at a stroke what years of committees, conferences, reports and debates about women’s under-representation in political life have failed to achieve: immediate parity between the genders in parliament.

‘One Person,Two Votes’

In their article ‘No (Parliamentary) Gender Gap Please, We’re British’ (Political Quarterly, Vol 79, 2008) Allen and Dean put forward the idea of ‘one person, two votes’ at a General Election. Each constituency in the UK would be asked to elect, not one, but two MPs each: one man and one woman.

The beauty of that suggestion is that

  • it’s a simple enough idea for voters to understand, and that
  • the elections would be administered in the usual way at no extra cost.

One Election, Two Houses

I’m suggesting that with this simple change we could populate both Houses from the one election. Once elected, the 2 MPs of each gender from each constituency would sit in separate Houses, with the men sitting in one House and the women sitting in the other. Constituents would then have a representative – and a democratic stake – in each House.

3 good reasons to separate by Gender

My first reason for suggesting a House for each gender is that it would ensure access by both genders to all the various roles on offer in Parliament: for example, the women’s House would elect a woman Speaker and deputy speakers; Chairs and members of committees would all be women. It’s Leader of the House would be a woman and both its Government and Opposition Front benches, would be occupied by women.

I think this could do more to change public perceptions of ‘what an MP looks like’ than any other single change.

My second reason is that real practical benefits could result from each House being allowed to organise its own affairs separately. So, for example, one House might decide to change its sitting hours to take its Members’ family and caring responsibilities into account, while the other House might not. One House might allow job-sharing among its Members, and the other might decide against it. One House might introduce electronic voting in the Chamber to speed up divisions, the other might stick with dividing into lobbies. These are just a few examples.

What I’m saying is that it would make it more likely that some of these ideas – ideas that have been advocated for many years – are tried out, to see how they work in practice, by one House or the other. If so, we might make progress on removing some of the practical barriers to a more diverse candidate base.

Gender-parity in Government

My third reason for dividing the Houses by gender is that it would ensure gender-parity in Government. This is because a feature of this model is that neither House would have ‘primacy’.

So, for a start, a working majority in both Houses would need to be secured by a leader of a party (or coalition of Parties) in order to be asked by the Monarch to form a Government. The Prime Minister would also be required to draw his or her Ministers equally from both Houses, to ensure equal access to Ministers in each.

The case for an Appointed element

To avoid delay, in the first instance we could use existing constituency boundaries; ideally boundaries would be redrawn to reduce the number to nearer 450 or so, allowing space for an appointed element in each House.

We’re all familiar with the sound arguments for having people in Parliament with a non-political background – those that have expertise and experience in ‘something else’ and who can take the longer view, not having always to bear in mind their own personal popularity with electors when considering an issue.

I would also argue that, in our quest for diversity, appointing a proportion of each House would make it possible to redress certain imbalances that might still result from an election – e.g. under-representation of disabled people or of a particular BME community.

My preferred option, then, would be to appoint a proportion (not less than one fifth, say) of each House: women appointees for the women’s House and male appointees to theirs.

Public Appointments – apppointed by the public – shock!

Appointed members [shall we call them AMPs?] could serve for 12 or so years, but be subject to both recall and renewal, in specified circumstances. But instead of appointments being made behind closed doors by some faceless ‘commission’ or quango, new AMPs could be selected by ad hoc committees of the general public who would be called-up to serve – rather like Jury Service.

Nominations would be accepted from the public, as well as political parties, business groups, unions etc.

Apart from adding transparency to the appointments process, this would also be a superb opportunity to educate and inform the public and to engage those on the committee with the work that Parliament does.

For continuity’s sake, and again to avoid delay, the first AMPs could be selected from our current ‘working’ life peers of each gender, with staggered expiry dates (based on date of entry) to establish a rolling pattern of one third or one quarter being replaced every 3 or 4 years.

The same provisos that exist under the Parliament Acts could be used with regard to AMPs not voting on Money Bills.

Implications for Political Parties

These relatively simple-to-implement changes to the way parliament is formed would provide the much needed incentive for Political Parties to modernise and ‘up their game’. Parties would need to take women seriously – both in candidate selection and in policy formulation. They would also need to nominate diverse ‘AMP’ candidates – and nominate them on genuine merit, rather than as a reward for party doners, or as a consolation prize for ex-MPs and ministers – once they were open to public selection.

Why wait?

All of the above could be done relatively cheaply. The infrastructure needed to facilitate almost all of this is already in place. Plus we have in our Parliament some of the most able procedural experts who could make the transition smooth.

In the interests of brevity I’m making the broad-brush case, and there would be details to work out. But – when you look back at Parliament over the centuries – in cases where they had no precedent, they simply had to make things up as they went along, thus creating a new one. I’m confident that new procedures and precedents would evolve, just as the old ones have, over time.

With over 2 years of the current Parliament still to run, there is no reason to put this off. We could have gender equality in Parliament and Government, with all the benefits for the UK that that would bring, as early as May 2015.