Lighting the touch-paper: increasing MPs’ pay

MPs’ pay remains a highly controversial issue, despite the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in the wake of the expenses scandal. Recent IPSA proposals to increase pay have sparked fierce reaction. Matt Korris of the Hansard Society argues that pay needs to be based on a dispassionate assessment of the work of MPs, but also take into account the nation’s current economic circumstances.


Increasing MPs’ pay is rarely a popular move outside Westminster. Credit: 401(K) 2013 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Few topics light the blue touch-paper of political controversy as easily as MPs’ pay, but last month’s proposal for a substantial salary increase during a period of austerity has made it even more contentious. At a time of such low public confidence in politics and politicians, is this really the time to introduce such a dramatic change?

The proposal comes from IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority responsible for MPs’ pay and expenses, which has a statutory obligation to review salaries ahead of each new Parliament. IPSA has spent the last year consulting on MPs’ pay and pensions before the recent announcement of a further consultation on a salary increase of £6,300 (from 2015) combined with changes to make their pension less generous. At a net additional cost of £500,000 a year, it is not hard to see why the package has been controversial.

Sir Ian Kennedy, the Chair of IPSA, said in a recent speech that ‘given that there has never been a good time, this is as good a time as ever’ to deal with the pay issue. He has certainly got the first bit right, but given the wider financial and political circumstances the timing seems far from ideal.

Public confidence in politicians is already low. The Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement reported that the public’s satisfaction with MPs in general (just 23% are satisfied) and their own MP (34%) are at the lowest levels in the last decade. To raise MPs’ salaries by 9% while the rest of the public sector is enduring a salary freeze or is restricted to very modest increases threatens to be a seriously damaging decision, as people’s attitudes towards politicians already border on contempt.

The risk is that MPs may pay a serious price for a decision not of their own making. There is a danger that the proposed increase is implemented by IPSA but the politicians seek different ways to avoid taking the flak for it; some MPs have already suggested that they will refuse to take the salary increase. But it will do politics no good if candidates compete in a race to the bottom at the next general election to see who will take the least salary. The pressure of such competition could restrict the pool of potential candidates to people already wealthy enough to make such pledges.

Part of the problem in this debate about parliamentary pay is the vexed question of how we value the role and work of MPs and what the public want and expect from them. Our focus group research in the last two years shows that the public are not just concerned about the work that MPs do, but also about the standards they set. However unfair it may be, much of the public hold politicians to a higher standard than they hold themselves. They want them to behave better than the general public, to set a lead, and to treat it not as a job or a career, but as a vocation.

And yet, research into the experiences and views of the 2010 intake of MPs suggests that they do make considerable sacrifices. New MPs are on average working nearly 70 hours a week, often including weekends. More than half (56%) of them took a pay cut on getting elected and almost a third (31%) took a pay cut of more than £30,000 a year or more. They have not come into politics for the money and the pay was not a deterrent: they were clear they knew what they were signing up for and they didn’t complain about the situation. But until the public have a better understanding of the realities of MPs’ work and lives, they are unlikely to look favourably on a pay increase.

So, is there a way to resolve the pay dilemma? The most promising avenue is that IPSA has already explicitly recognised that one of its fundamental responsibilities is a ‘restoration of public confidence in MPs’ pay’. To ensure some level of public confidence, IPSA need to make not just a dispassionate assessment of the work and value of MPs, but set their decision in the wider political and economic context. IPSA could therefore justifiably argue that on the basis of the evidence an increase is appropriate after 2015, but that the current circumstances simply do not allow for it. An increase could be postponed until the economic conditions, if not the political ones, had improved.

There is an important debate that needs to be had about the role and work of an MP and the value that attaches to that role. It will not be an easy one to have, nor will a salary increase ever be anything but unpopular, but having it at a time of wider prosperity might reduce the damage to public satisfaction that will result.

This post originally appeared on the Political Studies Association blog. It represents the views of the author, not those of Democratic Audit or the London School of Economics.

Matt Korris is a Senior Researcher at the Hansard Society. He co-authored the Law in the Making study and his current work includes analysis of the legislative process and studying methods of engagement between Parliament, Government and the public. Prior to joining the Hansard Society, Matt worked for three years as a Researcher/Parliamentary Assistant for a Labour MP and Select Committee Chair; managing the Westminster office, preparing newsletters, briefings and speaking notes. He has also worked for both the research and procurement teams at the Training and Development Agency for Schools.

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