I was on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday on the subject of MPs’ pay.
I found the whole debate fascinating and, as I said, I have come to no clear conclusion on it. However, the case I made was as follows, and I wonder what people think of it.
Firstly, MPs do have an incredibly important job – they make the laws of the land and oversee other policy (including foreign). For this, they are paid considerably less than, for example, many people who interpret the law or even enforce the law at a high level.
Secondly, the job involves immense stress. They represent 100,000 people, generally live away from home much of the week, and often work crazy hours in a pressurised environment. They have to balance interests of constituency, party and country in situations of high complexity. Small wonder that, only half way through the current parliamentary term, one sixth of the new intake of MPs had separated or divorced from their partner at time of election. That is a monumental price.
Thirdly, the job involves huge public scrutiny. MPs are held to higher standards than most people even in their daily or private lives. This is also highly challenging.
So, for a high level of professional skill, mad hours and huge stress, what do we pay them?
They earn two and a half times the average, but that is about the same as a public sector agency CEO in Northern Ireland; marginally less than the average school principal or police superintendent across the UK; and significantly less than the average NHS manager or GP. So where do we put them on the scale?
I think politics has to be a vocation, so I just about rule out GP-level salaries (even though, we may note, 800 people in the Northern Ireland Health Service alone earn over £100k, at least 50% more than MPs). However, maybe around a Superintendent of Principal, at approaching £80k?
The quid pro quo, as I suggested, was zero tolerance for other income of any direct kind at all – resignation of paid directorships, no dividends, probably no property either. There would also be zero tolerance on dodgy expenses claims. My suspicion is the public would live with a pay rise in those circumstances, even a fairly significant one.
I don’t accept, by the way, the line that there are loads of “good people” turned off politics by the “low salary”. In the case of Malcolm Rifkind (you’ll have to excuse me omitting his “title” in the current circumstances), you are dealing not with someone who needs more money, but with a pathetic man who has gotten well above himself. So I do not believe higher pay would end such issues entirely, but it would make them a lot clearer cut. I wonder if that’s a compromise we could live with?