At the height of the controversy over MPs expense claims in the last Parliament, it became fashionable amongst MPs to want to create an independent body which would settle MPs pay, expenses and office support without any interference or votes by MPs.
At the time I argued against in the many private discussions and debates we had about how to proceed. I pointed out there had been past attempts to take MPs’ pay out of politics by linking MPs’ pay to a civil service grade or a basket of “comparators” for the job. Each of these attempts had been adandoned when the comparator pay advanced too quickly, leading to demands from the public that MPs did not take the rise the automatic system would award. MPs usually agreed, avoided the unpopular rise, and looked around for another way to determine pay at a more acceptable rate.
So it came as no surprise to me that this time an independent body proposes an 11% pay rise for MPs in 2015, just after a period of substantial public sector pay restraint which so far MPs have rightly shared. The public who express a view are strongly against any such rise. Party leaders are aghast, understanding the impact any suggestion they support such a rise could have on their own and their party’s standing.
The party leaders are urging IPSA to think again. Yet it was the party leaders who were keenest on the idea of an independent IPSA in the first place. IPSA has until 2015 to consider. It will fall to the new government elected in 2015 to decide what to do. If that government does nothing, and IPSA presses on, MPs will receive an unpopular rise, balanced in part by meaner terms on pensions and expenses. If the government wishes to stop this, it either has to abolish IPSA, or override their pay decision by amending the law in some way that would allow this.
I think we are rediscovering an old truth. The pay of MPs is a highly charged political matter. In the end MPs are forced to settle the matter themselves, and explain to people how and why. The independent regulator does not seem to have prevented continuing controversy. If the MPs ride out the storm by stressing IPSA’s independence, that will still be seen by some as the MPs themselves wanting and getting a pay rise.