Fury grows over pay rise for politicians

The prime minister says it is ‘unthinkable’ for the House of Commons to be given a collective pay rise during a period of cuts to other public spending. Do MPs deserve higher salaries?

The situation could hardly be more embarrassing. The independent body that oversees MPs’ pay and expenses is about to recommend raising the salary for an average parliamentarian from £66,000 to as much as £75,000. And this revelation has come only a few days after the British government confirmed 144,000 job losses for public sector workers, and another swathe of deep cuts to the nation’s services.

Any pay rise would not take effect until after the next general election in May 2015, so some of those who currently sit in the House of Commons would not benefit from it anyway, if they lose their seats. But public disapproval about what is likely to be seen as an outrageously unfair boost to politicians earnings will be felt by all who work in Westminster now. So an unseemly row has begun.

David Cameron has no power over the independent panel’s recommendations, but he and Nick Clegg have both rushed to express their disapproval: the prime minister, whose own salary totals £142,000, has appealed to the panel’s head to show ‘restraint’ and his Lib Dem deputy said he would not take the raise himself.

After a rash of MPs were exposed in 2009 for exploiting the generous Commons expenses scheme, which has since been reined in, the British public has been quick to suspect all politicians of mercenary motives. Respect for politics as patriotic service, a way to convert cherished ideals into real change or any other high-minded definition, has dwindled.

An anonymous survey of MPs earlier this year showed they thought the standard salary for their job should be around one third higher than at present, at £86,000. Members of the public took a very different view, wanting to cut their wages by at least £10,000.

In 2011 MPs’ salaries were frozen, and last year rose by only 1% – the cap on pay rises for all public sector workers. But the electorate is in no mood to sympathise with the political classes, even if, as one former GP pointed out this week, becoming an MP often means accepting a much lower income.

Show me the money

Historically, only men with outside businesses or a private family income could afford to become MPs. Before 1911, there was no salary at all. Some argue that the UK is in danger of returning to an era when only the rich will be tempted to stand for parliament. Surely anyone with both political drive and a living to make will be put off?

Others say higher pay is not the only measure of worth, and parliamentarians have become too divorced already from the rest of the UK, where the average annual income is £26,000. The prime minister’s acute embarrassment is fitting when taxpayers already feel their pockets have been picked. Should public institutions offer excessive rewards on the assumption that this guarantees good people will work for the state?

You Decide

  1. During the depression, MPs took a temporary pay cut (between 1931 and 1935). Should they do so again?
  2. Are the financial rewards for a job the best way of deciding how society values the person doing it?

Activities

  1. Balloon debate: in groups, can you persuade others that you deserve a pay rise while they do not?
  2. Write a short speech for David Cameron to his own party’s MPs, asking them to vote against any pay rise, and explaining why voters will disapprove of it.

Some People Say...

“The love of money is the root of all evil.’ The Book of Timothy, New Testament”

What do you think?

Q & A

I can’t even imagine how rich I would feel earning £75,000 a year.
It’s true that the proposed new pay level would be way above average earnings. But the UK actually pays politicians much less than most comparable democracies. In the US, for example, a congressman or woman is paid £114,000.
I still don’t feel sorry for them.
Fair enough. Mark Field, a Conservative with a London seat, raised eyebrows when he said that if the regulator recommends a fat rise, ‘we should grit our teeth and get on with it.’ But behind the gaffe lies a grain of truth: creating a mechanism to take pay decisions out of the hands of MPs themselves, which happened after the expenses scandal, was supposed to make the process neutral. Intervening would undermine the new system at a stroke.

Word Watch

Independent body
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, set up in 2009, has introduced new rules on parliamentary expenses.
Expenses
The work of an MP creates many financial demands, most importantly the need to have a base in two places at once: part of their time must be spent near parliament in Westminster, and part in their constituencies. But in 2009 The Telegraph revealed that many MPs had been falsely claiming expenses, sparking an enormous scandal which led to several being sent to prison.
Mercenary
The noun usually refers to soldiers, but as an adjective it describes anybody who sells their services to the highest bidder or prioritises financial rewards over other motives for taking a course of action.
Lower income
Some GPs earn between £80,000 and £120,000 per year, and some make triple that salary. Others earn much less. MPs tend more often to come into politics from business or law, which also regularly offer six-figure salaries.

Subjects

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