Defending transparency and accountability is hardest when it is perceived to be in your self-interest.
It is not popular to defend the £7,000 pay increase for MPs that the independent parliamentary body has recommended, increasing their pay from £67,000 to £74,000 a year before tax (just over US $110,000). But there are, I believe, very important reasons for making such a defence.
First to say that their existing annual salary of £67,000 is a lot of money for most people: it is well above what most UK workers can ever expect to earn: the minimum annual salary being about £13,000 and the average being just over £26,000.
Over the past two days, nearly all leading MPs across all the main parties have lined up in the media to state how much against the proposal they are. Many claim that they will not be accepting the increase, donating it to charity or keeping it in a separate fund. David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, has asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to drop the proposal, although as an independent parliamentary body, this is a request and not an order.
It has, most definitely, become a public relations issue – with no perceived reputational or political pay off for any MP that defends the increase. It is perhaps a reflection on how deep the trust deficit surrounding Westminster has become that MPs should behave in this way. I will argue here that conversely, the legitimacy and trust of parliamentary activity requires better paid politicians. The social licence of MPs and of Parliament, requires some longer-term thinking and political bravery as there are deeper issues at stake – the transparency and accountability of elected bodies in the UK and around the world. And yes, even if this means MPs being accused of standing up for their own financial interests on this one occasion, much better it is done within the antiseptic fresh air of public scrutiny than some of the corruption of the past.
1. It is true that public sector pay in Britain has largely flat-lined over the past six years whilst the richest in society continue to get richer. This is heavily unfair and speaks to an increasingly unequal society. But the issue of MPs pay has not effectively been dealt with since the expenses scandals of 2009 and, let it be said, before that many MPs had regarded their expense claims to be more or less unofficial salary top ups. So MP pay issues in the UK go back much further in time and were also related to the other income they might receive from other forms of employer, shares or consultancies. The old ways of doing things were opaque, and sometimes corrupt, lets not return to that.
2. The increase would bring MPs in the UK onto a par with those in Germany (this seems a fair benchmark) but still well below MPs in countries such as Japan, the USA or Italy (some better benchmarks than others perhaps). Other public professions in the UK: head-teachers, senior civil servants and hospital administrators can all earn significantly more. There is never a good time to try and correct this imbalance, now is as good as any other.
3. Allowing MP salaries to continue to fall behind other professional benchmarks favors rich MPs. A 10% pay increase matters very little if you are independently wealthy, like some leading UK politicians are, but matters a great deal if you started with very little and trying to work 80 hours a week to serve your constituents and tackle inequalities. One shocking indicator are the number of UK MPs that have attended private school – a huge social class indicator in the UK which still surprises many of my overseas friends. Only 7% of the UK population attends private school, but they represent 54% of current Conservative MPs, 41% of Liberal Democrats and 12% of Labour MPs. This is perhaps a better benchmark for representational legitimacy than the pay rise issue.
4. The issue of trust and legitimacy in the eyes of the public is not just about the amount earned, it has been about the lack of transparency and accountability. The two should not be confused. Now that an objective process is in place, MPs should not pussyfoot around the recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) for reasons of short-term perception. How does this help trust and legitimacy over the longer term?
5. IPSA was created with the very mandate to place the pay increase decision, as well as other related issues, outside of political considerations and benchmarked against external indicators. To not implement this recommendation undermines the ability for objective oversight of such procedures within Parliament.
6. Creating ‘ring-fencing’ schemes for the increase will cause chaos and the kind of lack of transparency that IPSA was created to avoid. If an MP wants to give some or all of the salary to a charity, fine, but it should not be linked to the pay increase issue. They should also make sure that the name of the recipient charity is publicly declared, as such external interests are indeed an issue of public concern, particularly when it is in effect public money which is being re-routed.
7. We want the best MPs we can across the three countries (England, Scotland and Wales) and one province/region/country (Northern Ireland) of the UK – not just the richest, privately schooled Oxbridge educated middle-class or a Parliament dominated by the zealots. If it is true that Sepp Blatter earned $10million a year, and some UK bankers and CEOs do still not earn much less, shouldn’t UK MPs earn the equivalent of 1% of this, especially when they are meant to rein in the corrupt?
8. Giving a pay rise to MPs might create a stronger moral argument for ending public sector pay restraint elsewhere, particularly those professions blighted by poor pay such as residential care.
9. IPSA have clearly stated the pay award can be funded by the savings in MP expense claims and so there is no negative impact on the parliamentary budget.
10. If the IPSA recommendation is rejected by parliamentarians it will send a very perverse message on the UK’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Lets not forget that other parliaments around the world – some of which pay MPs more even in less developed economies – do not have similar oversight bodies. IPSA was very late in coming in the UK but, unless its work is supported by MPs, it will be undermined at home and is unlikely to be a model for reformers elsewhere around the world.
Yes, this is an instance where political bravery means an extra £7,000 a year before tax and where each MP (how ever uncomfortable it might be) will need to look their low-paid electorate in the eye during constituency surgeries and justify why it is in the longer term interests of the country. Not according to them but according to IPSA. Isn’t that what independent oversight is mean to be about?