Leading Article: Better pay for MPs, if it means better MPs

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Members of Parliament deserve 30 per cent - yes, maybe even a bit more. On past evidence, that opinion will cause much hollow laughter and saloon-bar sneering. MPs! Sellers of questions, traders in influence, fly-by-night lobbyists, part-timers: how can they deserve more money? And that is even before nature's trade unionists weigh in, asking: "What about the going rate? What kind of signal does an inflation-busting increase like this send? What price productivity gains?" Still, it is worth repeating: the quality of British parliamentary democracy depends, at least in part, on giving MPs more money than they currently earn.

The argument for higher pay has two legs, although the first is, on second thoughts, more of a prophylactic. MPs have to be paid enough to lessen the urge among reasonable, decent-minded parliamentarians to pursue other sources of income, which damages their effectiveness in the Commons and its committees. Sleaze, let's be clear, is not worrying because there exists some hard-and-fast principle forbidding all and every outside source of income for MPs.

Freelancing by MPs is not deplorable in itself. What matters is that when companies or lobbyists pay MPs to ask questions, or make speeches, or attend functions, they degrade what still has the potential to be a high-grade legislature. They lessen Parliament's effectiveness, and that is the offence. Extra money is worth paying if it makes the House of Commons function better as a law-making and monitoring chamber.

How much more? That difficulty is the same were the figuring to be done by Lord Nolan's committee or by some yet-to-be-established committee of rocket scientists or crystal-ball gazers. It's a judgement fraught with tricky comparisons and political risk. The existing link between MPs' pay and Grade Five civil servants won't do. No disrespect to that workhorse cadre from Whitehall but theirs is not the right level of pay for a very special group of men and women chosen by the nation to make our laws. (That word "special" is worth dwelling on. MPs are unique. The idea that comparisons can and ought to be drawn between them and the legions enrolled in Mr Rodney Bickerstaffe's Unison is preposterous. They are not in the public sector. They, by their votes, make the public sector.)

The top salaries' review board looks set to give MPs some pounds 45,000 a year. This is not what deputy secretaries in Whitehall command nor even what managers of large NHS trusts can expect, let alone what business executives of successful companies can aspire to.

It is, however, starting to look reasonable for this purpose. An MP earning that kind of money has no excuse for moonlighting. Let's be precise. Doing what George Walden or Roy Hattersley do - writing articles which editors like - is merely to exploit the same kind of gifts which made both of them admirable, if unsuccessful, politicians. But selling time and effort to lobbyists is different. What higher salaries do is give the sleaze merchants even less of an excuse.

The Prime Minister may be dangling more money in front of his backbenchers as some kind of end-of-term loyalty bonus. His intentions are irrelevant. More money for MPs justifies itself as a building block of legislative professionalism. During the course of the twentieth century, certainly since the First World War, the House of Commons has been in decline both as a deliberative chamber and as a monitor and custodian of the expenditure notionally willed by its majorities. In the more recent past the interplay of party and the ever-growing complexity of public management has left MPs as ciphers, lobby fodder whose reputation is only partly redeemed by the doggedness of certain select committees. The problem is broadly one of amateurism and lack of self-confidence. These are thoroughbred politicians who behave like legislative also-rans.

We have had a lot about MPs abusing their positions. And some do. Every legislature will - the beauty of democracy, this - always include a few rotten apples, however tight the policing, however strong the chorus of public disapproval. But, truth to tell, these examples are few - for the good reason that MPs lack clout. MPs' scope for corruption would be greater if they had not already allowed the executive to usurp much parliamentary influence. And that's the really important point. MPs deserve public scepticism less because of the occasional case of petty corruption, but because they are so powerless - because they have allowed the whips and ministerial patronage to ride roughshod over their rights as representatives and their obligations as tribunes.

Higher pay for MPs will get a straightforward "snouts in the trough" response from many voters. But there is a bargain being struck here. After Nolan, and the tighter rules on disclosure of outside income, this newspaper, like some others, accepted that a fit quid quo pro would be somewhat higher salaries.

It is fair to stick by that, however unpopular, and unpopulist, that may be this morning. But higher pay has to be part of a new settlement.

Judge us anew, MPs ought to say, on our performance as the spokesmen and women of the public interest, willing to think afresh about modernising the operations of Parliament, about the size of the Commons, about law- making and administrative oversight. MPs deserve a rise - but only if. If it ushers in a cleaner, more effective Commons, restoring the broken bond of trust between governors and governed. For the sake of the country, that would be a deal worth striking and a pay rise worth paying.

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