Ignore the outrage — MPs deserve a pay rise

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Those who have taken to stockpiling vast quantities of outrage during the pandemic will shortly have an opportunity to use it.

Yes, it’s that time of year again — public sector pay rises are about to be implemented, with MPs, as public sector employees, due for a top-up of their pay packets.

What? More tax-payers’ hard-earned cash to be poured into the trough? Time for some performative anger. And, of course, time for a handful of self-righteous MPs to hop on the bandwagon with some craftily-composed public displays of altruism.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), whose sole job is to pay MPs what they’re owed in salary and expenses, will shortly announce the level by how much it intends to increase parliamentarians’ pay. And let me be clear: the decision as to what (or whether) to offer an increase, and the size of that increase, is entirely down to IPSA itself. Neither the prime minister nor MPs — not even the public — gets a say in the final decision.

This all stems from the expenses scandal of 2009, after which the Commons decided that in order to ameliorate the understandable anger of voters at MPs’ greed and deception, the decision about their own remuneration should at last be removed from them and handed over to an independent body. 

At that point, it was pretty obvious that two things were going to happen. The first was that the move would be met with public approval. The second was that that approval would only last until the new independent body decided to give MPs a pay rise, after which the same public that had welcomed IPSA’s birth would screech their disapproval and demand that MPs be handed back the right, if not to set their own levels of pay, then at least to reject any of IPSA’s recommendations.

And so it has proved. IPSA itself has not improved matters by making the word “independent” in its title all but redundant; last year it caved to public and political pressure to scrap its intended pay rise for MPs, thereby creating the worst of both worlds: it appeared to be setting a precedent for unhappy voters to get their way, while doing no such thing.

If IPSA has the bottle to follow its own rules this year, MPs will be in line for a £2500 annual increase, which will take their salary up to about £84,500. Cue the usual off-the-shelf expressions of concern from the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. What else could they say when the electorate are pretty united in believing that most MPs deserve a pay cut rather than a pay rise?

If past practice is to be repeated, we will then see the usual suspects announcing via their websites and social media that they won’t be accepting the pay increase. This will be a false statement: they will all receive it; IPSA offers no mechanism to reject it. Knowing this, the MPs in question will further announce that they will be donating their annual increase to charity (probably an NHS one). After tax, of course.

Oddly, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that those who have made such gestures in the past have benefited electorally from this financial virtue signalling. I suspect no new evidence will emerge this time round.

The only way that parliament can avoid this annual rigmarole would be to pass primary legislation either amending IPSA’s mandate or abolishing it altogether. Neither of these actions will happen because the alternative — a return to MPs deciding what to pay themselves — would be far worse than the status quo. MPs would immediately come under pressure (and would readily succumb) to reduce their salary in real terms every single year. 

When that happened in the past, MPs were able to compensate their loss by (ahem!) broadening the generosity and flexibility of the allowances scheme, which was largely hidden from public view. That cannot happen in these days of Freedom of Information, so we would see MPs’ income gradually (or quickly, depending on the political climate) reduce. This would satisfy many. Which is no reason to allow it to come to pass.

Democracy costs money. And it always costs more than we would like. That’s unfortunate but it’s a fact. The only guaranteed effect of reducing MPs’ salaries would be to suffer a proportionate reduction in the quality of those who submit themselves for selection as candidates. You may think that the current calibre of MP is poor (every previous generation has had the same opinion, after all), but things can only get worse if you make it even less attractive for successful, ambitious people to give politics a go.

Since 2015, MPs have been getting paid a salary that is more in line with international norms. But general elections are normally held only once every four or five years, so it will take some time before we see whether this added financial incentive results in a higher quality of candidate. 

In the meantime, we should be careful what we wish for. A genuinely independent body deciding what to pay our politicians is a truly terrible idea. But, like democracy, it’s better than all the alternatives.

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