More than our trust, Parliament has lost our respect

The strict new pay and expenses regime for MPs announced by Sir Christopher Kelly yesterday has been presented as a necessary, if not sufficient, measure to restore ‘the public’s’ trust and faith in Parliament: as if Parliament were still fundamentally deserving of that trust. However, I’d put it the other way round: the fact that we’re no longer prepared to tolerate MPs’ enjoyment of a relatively cushy and lax system of perks indicates that we’ve lost our respect for Parliament and MPs; and hence, they no longer command our trust.

Our answer to the question of what kind of pay and conditions we think MPs ‘deserve’ reflects the esteem, or lack of it, in which we hold them: the amount we are prepared to pay them (because it is we the taxpayer who are their paymasters) is an indication of their ‘worth’ to us, in both a financial and social / moral sense. And right now, the ‘value’ we invest in MPs (in both senses) is pretty low.

I heard part of a programme on the radio the other day (I can’t remember which station or show) in which they invited a specialist consultant on executive pay to come up with a figure for how much MPs should really be paid, based on comparison with other professions or careers requiring similar levels of expertise, skill and dedication. The figure he came up with was between £100,000 and £120,000. Most MPs are actually paid ‘only’ around £65,000 per year. However, the same radio programme carried out a vox pop in which they asked members of ‘the public’ what they thought their members of parliament should be paid. Most said in the region of £30,000 to £40,000. That sort of figure is in fact completely unrealistic: primary school teachers in England get paid that much. But it reflects a feeling that MPs are ‘nothing special’ – no better than the ordinary hard-working folk they’re supposed to represent – and so are not deserving of special treatment. If you told the same members of the public that MPs’ pay would be increased to £100,000 based on the recommendations of an independent specialist advisor on pay, there’d be outrage.

MPs, for their part, were outraged when they were told yesterday that Sir Ian Kennedy – the man appointed to chair the independent body advising on MPs’ pay and expenses – would indeed be paid up to £100,000 per year: a mere unelected member of the public effectively carrying out a civil service-type role (albeit a hugely important one, in practical and symbolic terms) to administer MPs’ pay getting paid 50% more than those MPs themselves. ‘It should be the other way round’, you felt the unvoiced sentiment was in the Chamber.

But MPs should stop moaning about the withdrawal of their privileges – including that of setting the level of their own pay and allowances – and start focusing on the privilege of actually being MPs. If MPs’ ability to serve their constituents in Parliament properly is dependent on the financial compensation they receive for doing so, then they really are focused on their own finances, status and perceived needs more than those of the constituents they’re in Parliament to represent. If they moan about receiving ‘only’ £65,000 per year, then how can they really connect with constituents who are struggling to hold their own lives and families together on much less? MPs might think they are worth more than they’ll now be getting. But it is not they but the public that determines their worth and, indeed, their worthiness to serve as MPs in the first place; and, at the moment, the public thinks they’re worth far less than they’re getting. And it’s this lack of esteem that MPs should be worried about, not their pay and perks.

Once MPs truly take on board the idea that being an MP is not a profession like any other, and that they are no better than the people they represent, then perhaps they’ll actually deserve better pay and conditions because they’ll be doing their jobs properly. In those circumstances, people might once again look up to their MPs and, yes, trust them as their representatives in parliament to look after their interests and needs. But in the present, I expect most people would think Sir Ian Kennedy was worth the money he’ll be paid for representing the people’s concerns about parliamentary abuses, and for preventing MPs getting more than they deserve: Sir Ian would be seen as more of a people’s representative than the MPs.

So let those MPs become true servants of the people. And then perhaps they’ll get their just rewards, even if not financial.

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