Leading Article: Tell MPs what their job is tscription

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NOW here is a group with a grievance. The hours are notoriously unsocial, the job security low, the work-load increasing, the dangers of public abuse high. Their employers have treated them scandalously, frequently ignoring or overturning the recommendations of their pay review bodies. In 1983, for example, they were due a rise of 31 per cent; instead, the bosses proposed 4 per cent and eventually agreed to 5.5 per cent.

Not nurses, not teachers, not firemen, but MPs. Behind last week's backbench fury over the Nolan report, restricting outside earnings, lies the view, widespread in the House of Commons, that ordinary MPs are underpaid. If backbenchers' wages were better, runs the argument, they would not be tempted by dubious consultancies. "We must attract professional middle- class people to this House," said Sir Archibald Hamilton, Tory MP for Epsom and Ewell. "But if they are told... that they will receive a salary of pounds 32,000 per annum, they will not come." But it is hard to find much evidence to support these claims of injustice and penury at Westminster. Since 1979, prices have increased by 157 per cent, MPs' salaries by 251 per cent, average earnings for non-manual men by 262 per cent. The present MP's salary - actually pounds 33,189 - is slightly higher than the average for medical practitioners who top the Department of Employment's annual earnings survey. The average for university lecturers and solicitors is below pounds 25,000. These figures may cause surprise in the tree-lined avenues of Sir Archibald's constituency, but they are true none the less. The metropolitan elite, among whom MPs move, have curious ideas about what constitutes a reasonable wage. They are also apt to think that a chap must be on his uppers if he cannot afford private school fees.

It may be objected that MPs are, or should be, mostly successful, experienced and clever people, and should be compared, not with country solicitors, junior hospital doctors or assistant lecturers, but with people at the peak of their professions. But this takes us to the nub of the issues that Nolan has raised. What do we want from our MPs? They were not paid at all until 1911, when they got pounds 400. Lloyd George, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, described it as "not a remuneration, not a recompense, not even a salary". It was just an allowance, he said, to allow "great and honourable public service" from people whose means would not otherwise allow it. Enoch Powell, writing in the Times last week, echoed that Edwardian view. People, he said, should not become MPs for career, remuneration or perquisites. The public interest was only safe if people entered Parliament purely for the status, for "the esteem of oneself and one's fellow citizens".

Mr Powell argues that MPs must be trusted to do their duty according to their consciences, otherwise the whole basis of the parliamentary system breaks down. But it is precisely these ideals of disinterested public service, of trusting people to perform their work in the best interests of pupils or patients or clients, that the Tories have destroyed over the past 16 years. MPs have subjected everybody else to regulation, payment by results, performance indicators. Why should they expect exemption? Why, indeed, should they expect to be immune from the market principles that they apply to everybody else? There is no shortage of people who want to enter Parliament. It is surprising that some bright young thing from the Adam Smith Institute has not proposed the application of global market principles, allowing the import of candidates from the Far East, willing to work longer hours for lower rates.

The Nolan debate has revealed deep confusion about the MP's role. Do we want Mr Powell's Platonic ideal? Do we want professional politicians, expert in scrutinising the activities of government? Or do we want people wise in the ways of the outside world? Do we want a Parliament of all the talents? Or do we want a cross-section of the population, including the clever and the stupid, rich and poor, saints and sinners? What MPs need is a job description - and, if they think this is a funny idea, so in their time did teachers, civil servants, nurses and BBC producers. Only when their work is properly defined can they expect the rate for the job.