Tuesday, 2 July 2013

MPs, salaries and the "right" people for the job

MP salaries are in the news, and perhaps a little unfairly the MPs themselves are getting flack over an idea that has been made by an independent body set up in the wake of the expenses scandal to stop MPs from being able to keep inflating their own pay and expenses. However the result of this is the idea that MPs should be paid £75k, up from the current £66k. Being around three times the amount of the average salary in the UK already, at a time when the public sector (tax payer funded, like MPs) is facing a freeze year after year, at a time when those on benefits are having their benefits cut even at the most essential level by allowing the cost of food to increase over the basic benefits given, it's understandable why there are those that would be angry at MPs that accepted such a rise at this time.

However there are a few people that seem to defend the notion, if not the specific idea. Unfortunately it comes through several different myths and the convenient aligning of the job role out of context of the actual job. I just wanted to say a few things about those fallacies here...

The nonsense

MPs need to be paid more to attract the right people

I have a few different strings to my bow, and some things in my profession that excite me more than others. If I see jobs advertised I usually have two types of reaction. On the one hand I may take a job that is offering a lower salary if it is involving something that is more exciting and adds more worth to my life (or that I can add more worth to myself in a reciprocal nature), on the other I may take a job that is offering a higher salary if the conditions and opportunities are no worse than where I am right now.

The former kind of thinking comes from the "right people" for the job, and the latter comes from the "maybe right people" for the job. If an MP is using salary as a measuring stick when we're talking about 3 times the national average wage then they don't have their priorities straight.

"But Lee" I hear you cry, "What about all those extremely responsible business managers, lawyers and nepotised up-and-comings that will just go for a job in the City if we don't offer the right money?"

Let them.

If they are letting the figure they put in their pocket dictate whether or not they want to be involved in how a constituency is represented in parliament, then they shouldn't be going in to politics. The vast majority of people that work in the UK would be getting a significant pay rise to become an MP. It comes with other baggage, and certainly extra hours, but it is a huge rise for most.

For the rest, it's a bit of a pay cut...though likely not with much difference in terms of the hours or the stress that comes with the role, but those people are in the minority in this country, and part of the problem with politics is that it is a minority, demographically on quite a few different measures, of people that end up making up a majority of our policy decisions.

This isn't to say that they shouldn't be paid well. It cannot be denied that in general they work much longer hours than the average person, even the idea of parliamentary recess being a break is a nonsense that we should stop perpetuating ASAP. It's been said time and time again that if you put the wage too low you will *only* get people that are wealthy enough to afford to be able to devote their time to it. It's true. This doesn't mean we have to pay a luxurious wage of course, but it does mean that we have to accept that an MPs wage should be comparable to other public sector roles. Some have compared the MP salary to that of the average head teacher (£55k) and with this in balance what they are paid now might seem particularly fair.

MPs work longer hours, they should be paid more

Now, I did say that they work longer hours, but that doesn't mean that no-one else works just as long. For a start doctors, teachers, nurses, GPs, Lawyers, SME business owners, city traders all work very long hours...as, no doubt, do those at the other end of the wage scale that are taking on multiple jobs just to be able to afford the ever increasing rent.

There is, of course, a solid argument for an annual wage to be higher if you know the job is going to have longer hours. After all we are really paid by the hour or the day, though it is easier to pay by the month. If your job is 35-40 hours a week and an MP is doing 70, then their salary could quite happily be twice yours and still they'd be earning the same money as you. If we use a common "time and a half" model we can also say that they should be paid at least 2.5 times the average salary, it's just not worth it otherwise. But this would still only put their salary at around £55k.

MPs are running our country! There's nothing more important!

Jobs are rarely salaried based on how important, dangerous or high in responsibility they are. If they were a soldier wouldn't be starting on £18k while middle managers of fairly inconsequential if not successful businesses passed responsibility from below them to above them and vice versa for £50k+.

But all this is besides the point because an MP does not have an important job, not individually. Most of the time they don't even have a say of their own thanks to the party whip. If we're paying people for how much they're running the country then we should only pay more to those actually doing the running. Of course this is ministers on the government side, but it is also those involved in the policy creation for each party (not necessarily an MP), those providing the real advice and implementation solutions (civil servants) and those making sure those individual MPs don't upset the party (the Whips).

The majority of MPs, some back bench notables excluded, may well do a fine job of representing you and I, and doing their party's bidding, but they are by no stretch actually running the country, they don't have the kind of responsibility.

£66k is not that much compared to GPs' or Police Chiefs' salaries

True, but then it's a stupid comparison to make. For a start a GP has to have gone through years of training to get to the position of being able to practice, indeed they need to have put a lot of money in to the system to pay for the education needed to get the qualifications they require to practice. And Police Chiefs? They don't suddenly find themselves parachuted into the role of organising the police after they graduate from university.

A basic MP, freshly elected for the first time, they get a basic salary of £66k but may have no political experience. They may not have practiced any politics at all, and even if they did the rigor required in scrutinising legislation and debating it would be a different beast at the national level.

There are opportunities for progression. up to 109 MPs will become ministers of the government, another 30 or so will get a smaller supplement for chairing the various committees that are responsible for discussion policy and scrutinising matters of the day. This may not be enough, and I would actually welcome financial reward for those MPs that do the parliamentary side of their job properly, and for longer service.

A diversion

Of course all this talk of salaries is a side-issue really; for a start it is a drop in the ocean, though this isn't an excuse to just let the wage bill increase. Ultimately the problem is, as alluded to above, that the wrong measure of the "right kind of MP" is being used.

We live in a country where we are rarely represented by the "common man/woman" in our constituencies. There are dozens of constituencies where the MP has little to no local knowledge simply so that the party can preserve key members in their ranks from being outside of the bubble. We have pretty terrible turn out at elections and our electoral system doesn't allow for anyone but the big-two/three/four (depending on your area) to win. We as a people had a chance to really make a difference on this with electoral reform and we threw it away in favour of spiteful hatred.

Yet even if we did have a more accessible voting system, the process of getting elected is not accessible at all. Candidates have to pay a deposit to run, essentially removing all but the rich that can afford to lose some money for an opportunity to represent their area, and don't get it back if they poll less than 5%. How are elections "free and fare" is someone who is disabled cannot financially afford to enter the race to be an MP without aligning themselves with a party who will pay for them (as long as they vote as they're told)?

Yet even if we had a voting system that encouraged people to be able to vote for who they really wanted rather than being forced to choose first from the most likely winners, and people didn't have to pay to just have a go at joining politics, we'd still have a problem because in the type of closely fought areas where there is even slim hope of attaining some kind of significant support, Lord Ashcroft and Unison's money will swoop in from upon high and figuratively drown out your voice in a sea of green...or well, red blue and yellow.

Without free access to run, a voting system that doesn't force people to hedge their bets, and a set of campaigning rules that gives all candidates a basic level of funding to promote themselves with, with strict limits on party funding for election campaigns, we are forcing ourselves to severely constrict the pool of people we can look to and from them search for the best person to be an MP.

The right people for the job

Do we want the right people in politics? Who are the right people? We seem to be tacitly accepting that the right people are high flying businessmen (and sometimes women), lawyers, eton graduates (though very rarely scientists or researchers), but that they should be happy they're being paid by the state.

I say bullshit. The right people are the people that are chosen. We have no other measure as to how good or not an MP is other than that they have the trust of their constituents for 5 years to do what they said they'd do. Without recall (which is it's own nest of honey badgers) the only option is to not elect them again in the future, but at least that is an option.

Rich or poor, educated or not, male or female, none of this makes one bit of difference as to whether the prospective MP will listen to local issues, consider carefully laws they are voting on, and lobby the causes that their constituents want a louder voice about. We have to trust the public to inform themselves, there is only so much hand holding you can do, but it is the kind of person that is a true advocate that we should be trying to encourage to the job. Something tells me that salary plays a low part of the consideration for those type of people when they consider politics, knowing the salary as it stands now.

The bottom line

My overall opinion? I don't mind their salary going up if their role is better defined and if they are held more accountable. I think that the idea that they hold positions on boards and directorships of organisations while an MP is a disgrace...declared or not they cannot act independently with direct pressure to get "mates rates" for their business from partners. But I also think that their expenses arrangements are extremely generous, especially for London based MPs, and that the potential that MPs have to earn after they retire or are no longer elected to their constituency is huge compared to the average person. We also have to realise that as the salary goes up, and the "talent" comes from the "right" pool, all we do is move the barrier so that an even higher salary needs to be considered to attract an "even more talented" set of people to the job.

I would go with IPSA's recommendations this time but only if there was (as is rumoured) a realignment of the pension conditions for MPs, and a change in the law to mean that MPs cannot have second jobs or responsibilities while holding a seat. This is not because I think that their role is particularly deserving of a rise, but that for any other job in the public sector I'd want society to be fair and say that if we're going to constrain your working arrangements and conditions, we're going to at least try to leave you roughly as well off as you were before the changes. It's more than those in government deserve given how they've treated the poor and the vulnerable...but then I was taught two wrongs don't make a right.

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