You get what you pay for

25 Jan 08
ANN ROSSITER | This Thursday, MPs voted on the issue of their own pay. Like most other political observers, I believe this was an inappropriate thing for them to do.

This Thursday, MPs voted on the issue of their own pay. Like most other political observers, I believe this was an inappropriate thing for them to do.

Not, as many people argue, because it gives MPs the opportunity to increase their pay beyond that which they deserve, but for the opposite reason.

We should oppose MPs determining their own income levels because it puts them in a morally invidious position in which they are under considerable pressure to limit their pay to avoid accusations of greed.

The end result is not that they grant themselves too much money, but too little. Current salary levels for MPs are far from competitive and the recommendations by their pay review body do little to remedy this.

Being an MP is one of the most responsible jobs in the country, yet their remuneration is far outstripped by comparable roles in the private sector.

A backbench MP receives a salary of just £60,675. Compare this with private sector remuneration, where board-level pay usually reaches six-figure sums.

Even middle managers in the private sector have larger pay packets. Recruitment notices for sales directors, for example, regularly put the starting salary at £70,000 or more.

And when the private sector seeks to employ professionals, such as lawyers or architects, it will offer £100,000 without flinching.

You might argue that a more appropriate comparison would be equivalent jobs in the public sector, but MPs’ rates of pay are now seriously outstripped here too. A head teacher has a starting salary of £62,547 (or £68,637 in inner London), which can rise to £90,360 in the largest schools. GPs earned an average of £106,000 during the first year of their new contract.

Meanwhile, our elected officials are on a salary equivalent to a relatively junior manager or consultant in other areas of the public sector.

For example, consultant posts in education and the NHS are currently being advertised at £65,000 per year, and project manager positions in the same sectors at £70,000 per year.

Of course, these salaries are dependent on experience, but it is precisely the people with a broad range of experience whom we wish to attract as MPs.

Last month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report on wealth disparities, which showed how income levels of high-earners are growing at a greater rate than those of the rest of the population.

While this increasing gap between the rich and poor might be unwelcome, it is a fact of life —something that needs to be recognised when determining pay scales for the top public jobs in the UK.

Some will argue that serving as an MP is a privilege. Indeed it is, but this does not negate the need for competitive rates of pay. While ambitious people will always want to stand for public office, we should also be trying to attract those who are best qualified for the task.

And that task is an extremely demanding one. MPs must scrutinise legislation; hold the government to account; troubleshoot for their constituents; and sit in judgement on matters of national and moral importance, such as whether we should allow stem cell research, or whether we should go to war.

It is skilled multi-tasking par excellence. To tempt the very best people into the Commons, when they are already gainfully employed, we need competitive rates of pay. Our MPs are getting younger and younger, and this is unsurprising when the salary it offers is at the level achieved by a talented 30-year-old in other walks of life.

Getting the right calibre of people into the House of Commons is important, too, because the backbenches are the reservoir of talent for ministerial office. They will be the people who end up running the country, taking responsibility not just for major budgets and huge organisations, but also for the health and wellbeing of the nation.

The benches of the House of Commons should be filled with the very brightest and the best, people who have wide experience in other walks of life, as well as vision and principles.

We will not attract people of such calibre without increasing pay. Instead, we will see the rise of ‘career’ politicians, whose only jobs have been in politics.

It is time that we had a more mature debate about MPs’ pay. Most MPs have no wish to take this decision themselves.

If we gave this decision to a body with the remit of increasing the calibre of our MPs and attracting the most able, it would be likely to recommend a pay increase of closer to 20% than the 2% currently being discussed.

Did you enjoy this article?