There is a big gap between what the public (and press) think about MPsâ€™ pay and expenses, and what many MPs think. A lot of constituents think Â£60,000 is a good salary, and are concerned about some of the claims MPs have put in under the second homes allowance and travel budgets. Some in the press and public think the second home allowance is wrong in principle. A lot of MPs think they are paid relatively little compared to similar people in the public and private sectors, and point to long hours, the being constantly on call, and the strong accountability which having to argue your case to keep your job every four or five years naturally generates.
So let me tell you the trade union case for the MPs, so you can get angry and tell me how the pay and the expenses of all MPs needs to be cut down to a smaller size.
During a Parliamentary week an MPâ€™s day might begin with a working breakfast, followed by a morning of emails and letters. The MP might attend the chamber for questions and debate in the afternoon, might attend committees and other meetings in the early evening, have a working dinner in the House, and be allowed home after 10.15 pm and a vote on a Monday and Tuesday. So the week may start with two 14 hour working days. On Wednesday the Parliamentary day usually finishes around 7.15pm, but there might be evening dinners or meetings to attend. On Thursday proceedings end at 6.000pm ,allowing many to travel back to the constituency on the Thursday evening to be in situ for morning meetings on the Friday. Any hard working MP would regard a 40 or 45 hour Parliamentary week as a rare pleasure, and some claim to work 70 hours. Sensible MPs do not regard Saturdays and Sundays as days off as a matter of course, as there are civic services, party events and community events to attend. So, some MPs say, on the basis of hours worked and commitment they deserve a decent salary.
The system both expects that in a Parliamentary week an MP will work more than the usual 40 hour week, and that it is possible for many MPs to do a second job as well. About 100 MPs have second jobs as Ministers. They are paid extra, and have to fit in Ministerial meetings, running the civil service office, Ministerial visits and the other extra features of Ministerial life. Other MPs have second jobs as Chairmen of Select Committees, or of other committees of the House, for which they are also paid an extra salary. Fitting in the Ministerial job is of course much easier during the weeks when Parliament is not in session.
MPs point out that they do have a job which requires regular attendances both in the constituency and in Westminster. For some it is simply impossible for them to travel daily to and from Westminster. For others it could be done but it would mean two to four hours travel taking away time from doing the job itself, and might become impossible on nights when the House sits later than 10 pm to do the journey by public transport.
There have been several attempts to get away from the position where MPs have to settle their own pay. External experts have decided who is most comparable to MPs, and have proposed linking MPs pay to these external references. It used to be a senior grade in the civil service. That grade then became too well paid for the political reality, so a group of comparators from public and private sectors was chosen. They too are now paid much more than MPs. Some MPs think they should be assessed like a GP, or a senior executive of a principal Council, or the Head of a large school â€“ the sort of people they have regular dealings with. That would mean a large pay increase, which is the last thing the public thinks appropriate.
Mps also have to perform a private unpaid role as senior politicians. We cannot claim any of the allowances for our work in elections, or in support of other candidates. Anything we wish to write and send that has political content has to be paid for from party sources. Any travel we undertake in our political capacity we pay for ourselves or seek party assistance.
All MPs (including me) think it bizarre that we are said to claim a six figure sum in â€œexpensesâ€ when the largest item is staff salaries to pay for secretaries and case workers necessary to carry out our proper duties. I know of no other group of senior employees who are thought to benefit personally from the salaries of their staff.
Reform is in the air, but MPs are very boxed in. As one who understands only too well how the public feel about the current arrangements for pay and expenses, I realise there needs to be more accountability, and MPs have to take only those expenses which they can fully justify as essential to carrying out their functions well. Some MPs think the housing allowance should be abolished and pay increased to reflect that. There is never a good time to hike MPâ€™s pay, but this is clearly a very bad time when everyone else is accepting low rises (as MPs have just done) and are feeling under great pressure. Some MPs think that lowering the level of expense that requires a receipt combined with more audit will be sufficient. This does not tackle the sense by many that the legal allowances are too generously defined in some cases.
I would be interested to know what you think about a) What is the correct rate of pay for an MP and b) what items should an MP be able to claim on expenses? Do you think it reasonable that MPs should be assisted with second home costs, given the two centre nature of the job?
I think there are too many MPs and there is too big a support bureaucracy. I would economise over time by dealing with that.