Leader: When will MPs get proper jobs?

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The charge of the gallant 200 MPs, signing up for a doubling of their wages, has been as brave as it has been doomed. If they press their attack, only the tattered remnants will make it back to friendly lines. For the country does not want to hear their arguments, or to consider their case. John Major knows this, and will probably deny their request that the Nolan committee's remit should be widened to take in MPs' pay.

Pensioners will say they could live handsomely on an MP's expenses. The upstanding will argue that public service is its own reward. The self- righteous will allege that MPs are simply feathering their nests and should not be paid more because they already earn so much in consultancy fees and other nefarious sources of income.

All of that misses the point, which is: what rate of pay will ensure that those who the country might wish to put themselves forward for election are not deterred from doing so by financial considerations?

Yet before we can consider that question, we must decide our answers to others: what sort of job is it that we are paying for? How well do MPs do it? How many of them do we need?

The three tasks of members of the Commons are usually defined as sustaining a government (providing ministers, passing legislation, etc); scrutinising legislation and the actions of the executive; and staffing a forum that is meant to be the focus for democratic debate.

They only do the first part of their job moderately well. The House sustains the Government: the whipping and patronage systems make sure of that. But the Government has far too many ministers, especially in an era when the scope of the state is meant to be shrinking.

As a scrutinising chamber, the House performs badly. Select committees only look at past actions of the Government or make general recommendations about policy. They do not prevent bad ideas becoming bad law.

As to national debate, the twice weekly juvenile point-scoring of Prime Minister's Question Time, the generally low level of attendance and the standard of speaking when important issues are debated all bear testimony to poor service rendered by the House in leading discussion. There is better discussion on many radio phone-in shows or on television. Only a handful of MPs (and practically none on the back benches) are so wise that one would cross the road to hear them speak.

In their candid moments, MPs agree with this. The condition of their work, the powerlessness of the backbencher, the futility of attending the House and its archaic rules, and the odd hours all act as disincentives to those who might otherwise wish to serve, especially able women.

So before any committee looks again at MPs' pay, there should be a more sweeping review of what sort of job we want these people to do. No sensible company would restructure the pay of its entire workforce without calling in a team of management consultants to examine productivity, quality and customer service. Such a review could consider the case for sharply reducing the number of MPs (we have the largest chamber in the world: the Japanese, Indians and Americans have much larger populations and many fewer MPs); empowering select committees to scrutinise legislation; instigating a root-and-branch reform of parliamentary procedures; and reconsidering the amount that MPs can earn from outside sources.

We know that to get a better quality of MP we should pay a rate comparable to that in the private-sector professions. Yet to raise MPs' pay, without being much clearer about what we want from them and how we should measure their performance, would be stupid.