Euan McColm: Why MPs should get a pay rise

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture: PA
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BETTER MPs would dispense with hair shirts and hand-wringing over pay, writes Euan McColm

IF SOMEONE told me I was in line for a seven-grand pay rise, I’d be tickled pink. I’d indulge the kids’ obsession with Lego, plan (and fail) to pay off some debts, and visit eBay to search for “rare doo-wop 45s”.

An extra £600 a month would come in very handy, thank you. I’d know just what to do with it. Not a single penny would go to waste in the pursuit of indulgence.

Chances are you could have a fair crack at spending that extra money too. And you’d probably be as pleased as I would, to see it drop into the bank each month.

Almost none of us would be unhappy about this stroke of good fortune.

Except, that is, those of us who happen to be members of parliament. If you’re an MP, it is obligatory to be very cross indeed (or pretend to be very cross) about a pay rise.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body which sets MPs’ salaries, has decided that elected members at Westminster deserve a little more; IPSA proposes a pay rise, taking their earnings from £67,060 to £74,000.

A decent wedge, yes, but is it really obscene?

Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his opposition to the pay rise, while the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are agin, as well. And the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, and Lib Dem leadership hopeful, Tim Farron, say they will give any extra money to charity.

It may be not be a popular view these days, what with all MPs being terrible rogues and footpads, but there are, I think, two very good reasons why the pay rise should go ahead.

First, IPSA is, by definition, an independent body, which deals not just with matters of pay but expenses, too. It was established in the aftermath of the expenses scandal of 2009 with the purpose of taking these matters out of members’ hands and MPs have no place trying to influence it.

Rules, in the case of IPSA, must be rules, and if we would recoil at MPs trying to strong-arm the organisation on an expenses matter, then we should do so if they try to influence it on pay, regardless of the situation. Simply, it is independent; the clue is in its name.

And second, MPs are currently paid too little. Of course, £67,000-plus is a good salary by any standards but it is not, when compared with other professions, anywhere near to being ­excessive.

An MP makes around £20,000 less than a GP. Many head teachers, too, take home more than our elected representatives.

A decent MP, putting in the hours required to attend to parliamentary business and constituency matters, must work like a dog. This is not a 9-to-5 role, but one which consumes evenings and weekends. While the rest of us switch off, MPs – assiduous ones, anyway – carry on. They do, unpopular as this view may be, work hard for their money.

There is a popular notion that MPs should be just like the rest of us and it’s certainly true that we require a Commons that reflects society. But don’t we want those who serve to be the best of us?

Why should we recoil from offering salaries that might attract brighter minds from the fields of law, ­medicine, education and business? Since MPs have profound influence in all these areas, wouldn’t it be worth shelling out for a little ­expertise?

Ah, you might say, but MPs shouldn’t do it for the money but because they feel a sense of duty, a drive to perform public service. That pious proposition is weary, now. If we expect MPs to be like the rest of us, then we should accept – and applaud – those who show personal ambition, who want to get on for the benefit of themselves and their families.

The comedian Billy Connolly ­famously remarked that the desire to be a politician should prevent anyone from actually being one. It was all very funny until one thought about it. What would be the alternative? The drafting of unwilling parliamentarians?

In fact, the desire in anyone of good character and in possession of a sharp mind to be a politician should be positively encouraged.

Much of this hand-wringing about pay is politicians’ own fault. The expenses scandal, when many – but, really, not all – kicked the arse out of their allowances, made us justifiably sceptical of the motivation of the political class.

But long before that, MPs had fashioned hair shirts to wear when it came to pay rises. Labour and Tory politicians at Westminster have long made cheap political capital out of refusing increases, personally painful though that might have been.

When Alex Salmond quit as SNP leader last year, he announced he would be donating his First Minister’s pension to charity and, now that he holds a dual mandate as both an MP and an MSP, he will donate one of his salaries to good causes, too.

And further back, when the SSP under Tommy Sheridan (you don’t hear much about him these days, do you?) was a small force at Holyrood, its MSPs made a point of paying themselves only the average worker’s wage. The fact that they actually took 
the full whack due to them and then donated a large chunk to their party to pay staff was neither here nor there; this was successfully spun as politicians living like those they represented. Or like the average ones, ­anyway.

We despise “career politicians” (even though that term describes perfectly such popular figures as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the late Charles Kennedy) but what is wrong with them if they are good and ­effective?

Former prime minister Tony Blair last year said it was time to boost MPs’ salaries in order to attract the very best candidates. He was shouted down because too many of us have bought into the notion that what is a decent salary is an indefensibly excessive one – but Blair was right.

The honourable members currently trying to reject their pay rises are not doing anything to improve the calibre of those who represent us. «