So much for the cheaper politics that party leaders are so keen to espouse. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is all set to confirm its proposal of an 11 per cent pay rise for MPs. After the 2015 election, a basic salary of £66,396 will go up to £74,000.
Given the circumstances, the decision is impossible to justify. Against a backdrop of five years of economic stagnation, sub-inflationary wage increases and painfully squeezed public spending, Ipsa’s arguments about a one-off hike to make up for several years of falling behind do not wash. Even the commitment to tie increases to the national average after 2015 do not make the move more palatable. Although tweaks to extras such as pensions and dinner allowances may bring the cost down, the public purse will still be down by £4.6m a year. At a time of austerity, can it really be claimed that MPs need scarce Treasury funds more than public services do?
None of which weighs heavy with Ipsa. But politicians from across the spectrum are queuing up to denounce the scheme. For Ed Balls, it is “preposterous”; for Danny Alexander, “utterly incomprehensible”; for Philip Hammond, “wholly inappropriate”. As long ago as July, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband both made clear that they would not accept a bumper raise; and although Downing Street stopped short of a similar pledge on the Prime Minister’s behalf, the emphasis was very much that “the cost of politics should be going down, not up”.
In fairness, the question of MPs’ pay is not quite as simple as it seems. In these distrustful times, much of the public might automatically resist the notion of extra money for a political class sadly often considered to have their collective snout in the trough. It is also true that parliamentarians are already paid well over twice the national average. The work is hard, inconvenient, and hugely valuable, though. It is also in all our interests that politics comes with sufficient financial reward to tempt the highest calibre of candidates, regardless of their circumstances, and also to reduce the risks of large-scale corruption. A return to Parliament as a club for those with private income or with special-interest backing bodes badly for both our democracy and the efficient running of the state.
Even so, a double-digit increase simply cannot be defended in the current climate. MPs are public servants; yet their colleagues in the rest of the public sector have seen a mere 1 per cent added to their wages in the past year. The difficulty is that there is no way to challenge Ipsa. The watchdog was created in 2009, in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal, to take the politics out of parliamentary remuneration. As such, its decisions are binding.
The result is a dog’s breakfast. To create an independent body and then overrule its decision is as absurd as it is legally questionable. Yet what remains is a situation where individual MPs are being forced to make a very public choice, skewing the system in favour of those who can more easily afford to eschew a raise and leaving a supposedly professional concern more unfairly exposed to politicking than ever.
Responsibility for the debacle lies with Ipsa. Not to have taken account of the economic climate shows a tin ear so profound it is difficult to credit. Even if MPs are indeed underpaid, why not simply wait until national wage levels have recovered from the financial crisis to remedy the situation? There is still time. Ipsa should think again.