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MPs’ earnings revisited

January 18th, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 1 Comment · Politics

I do not make a habit of responding to comments in one post by creating a new one, but in this case I thought I would following the sudden outbreak of discussion in an old post from 2007.  The post was about the earnings of MPs and I think it is worth re-visiting because of the events since then, the current small flurry of interest in the old post and my changed perspective.My changed perspective comes from being a PPC myself.   You may say that being a Labour candidate in Horsham does not make it very likely that I would be personally affected by any of this, but it does mean that I theoretically have a chance of becoming an MP.  It is a bit like the National Lottery: the chances of winning might be small, but if you don’t have a ticket they are zero.  Having said that, having my chances of becoming an MP increased from zero to a very, very small number has not changed my opinions: it is just a bit of disclosure.

First of all I have to say that I will not be joining the Facebook group average national salary for all MPs for the simple reason that I do not agree with its aims.  I do agree with the sentiments that some MPs are not giving value for money, but many are and I do not see why they should suffer the punishment for others’ slacking.

Another reason is the group is conflating and confusing the issues of salaries,  expenses and outside earnings.  These are totally separate. In each case you have to take some time to think of the analogies with ‘normal’ jobs.


As far as the salary is concerned, I can see a bit of both opposing points of view.  It can grate when a group of people earning what is quite a lot, urge the nation to settle for low pay rises especially when they can set their own levels but I do not think that pegging the salary at national average wage is the answer.

We do expect a lot from our MPs most of which we would not expect from somebody doing the sort of job that attracts the average salary.  In most places when a worker picks up the kinds of commitments that an MP does they will get paid based on their responsibility which will be well over the average.  Non-management positions where workers were expected to work anti-social hours and be effectively on-call at wekends and at nights would be getting all sorts of antisocial hours payments and on-call allowances.  At a previous job some staff were being paid a 20% premium on their base salary just for agreeing to be contactable at all hours for one week out of four for example.

So if you want to pay an MP the national average salary do not expect them to do more hours than somebody else on that salary was earning nor expect them to work outside office hours.

Personally I would not touch the job with a bargepole for the average national salary.  I would be happy to continue working normal office hours for well above the national average as I do now, with none of the grief.    I actually expect above-average effort and commitment from my MP and I am willing to pay for it.

I have always favoured some sort of formula, as Danivon suggested, based on various factors.  It might be a simple multiple of the average salary, giving an incentive to improve that, or it could also be influenced by other factors like RPI or have a formula that takes into account the wages of particular sectors.  The important thing should be that once the formula is set it is out of the hands of MPs themselves.  I believe that it demeans the image of politicians when they set their own pay.

That is still not perfect though.  One could see it as a way of sort of linking pay to performance, but in that respect it is very unfair: a member of an opposition party would have their pay level set based on the performance of the government even though they disagreed with and voted against everything the government did to achieve that performance.  Of course this happens with many companies’ performance-related pay schemes that are linked to share price or revenues or whatever.


Think about a normal job.  If you had a job where you were expected to work three or four days a week in the London office for half the year, but return to your base for the rest the time,  you would expect your employer to pay for the extra costs involved wouldn’t you?

I have travelled quite a lot for work.  In all cases the company paid for me to go where I needed to go and then paid for my accommodation when I got there, along with some incidental expenses.  Why should an MP’s job be treated any differently?  The fact that some MPs have, frankly, been taking advantage and putting in claims for things can by no means be said to be essential, does not mean that all expenses are pocket-lining fraudulent claims.  Even the crooks will have also racked up plenty of legitimate expenses, and plenty of MPs will only have legitimate expenses.

Quite a few MPs incur some expenses purely because of their job that they do not bother to claim back, I am sure.  This will be because they are earning a pretty decent salary and can afford to.  Trying to curtail expenses while also cutting salaries is totally nonsensical.

Last year the median weekly wage was £479 (or about £25k a year).    Can you really expect to pay somebody £25,000 a year and have them support themselves and their families while also paying rent on office space,  furnishing and supplying the office, paying workers for the office, travelling to and from London and staying in London when necessary? Oh – and to keep filling up their car so they can drive to all points of the constituency for public meetings, surgeries, visits to local companies and public facilities.

With those sorts of contraints we would go back more than 100 years to the situation where only people who could afford to do the job would be those like David Cameron who were independently wealthy, or those who could do some extra jobs on the side.

By all means tighten up the expenses regime.   I can’t think of a sensible company that would allow employees to claim back expenses they incurred as part of their job without having a receipt attached – but I also can’t think of a reasonable company that would expect employees to supply their own facilities or fund their own business trips.

Personally, in the unlikely event of becoming an MP, I would keep receipts for everything, attach them to expense claims whether required or not, and be happy to publish the complete list locally.  Apart from the publication bit it is what I do anyway as an employee.  I cannot see why anybody would object to that, unless they had something to hide.

As we have high expectations of MPs, like the fact we expect an answer when we write to them,  expect the phone to be answered if we call the office, or expect them to visit us if we have a problem and cannot physically get to their surgeries or office, we have to expect them to spend the money needed to do that and to employ some staff at a reasonable living wage to manage their affairs.

I do believe that those employees should not be family, with the temptation to overpay them for the benefit of the family.   Apart from anything, the staff wages should be set centrally, maybe even the staff should come from some central pool of suitably-qualified personnel.

This would cause a problem in my case, because my wife would be an ideal worker in an MP’s office with her experience of helping people claim their entitlements.  Should I ever be in such a position I would try to persuade her to work in the office voluntarily because my principles would prevent me from paying her but I would really want her knowledge. Unfair on her, but with a £60k+ family income we could afford it.

To put it another way: if an employee spends £10,000 pounds on train fares and hotels in order to visit customers and then claims £10,000 from their company are they really any better off than another employee that travels nowhere, incurs no costs and claims nothing?  The complaints about MPs’ expenses are like complaining that the first hypothetical employee is getting paid £10,000 a year more than the second.

By all means hound the employee who spends £5,000 on fares and claims back £1,000 but the employee who forks out his own money to visit customers and then is not re-imbursed will pretty soon decline to visit customers – and quite rightly so.  Do not commit the Daily Mail Fallacy of responding to abuse of a system by attacking all users of the system rather than the abusers.

Outside earnings

The one part of the Facebook group I can totally agree on.   Many companies have clauses in their employment contracts that forbid additional employment, so banning that for MPs would be consistant.  As an employer I would not want staff who are too knackered to do their job because they sped every evening working behind a bar or doing a night shift as a security guard.  I would want them refreshed on a monday morning and not red-eyed from having been stacking supermarket shelves or doing agency nursing.

There are also the conflicts of interest.  Would you want a member of a council’s planning department earning money on the side by doing some freelance consultancy advising developers on their planning applications for example?   Would you want somebody in your buying department who is negotiating prices with suppliers who works weekends at a company making something you buy?

I do not think the issue is cut and dried though.  MPs are entitled to some private life and may do something for relaxation that they can get paid for, whether it is public speaking, writing, playing drums for a pub band or buying and selling on eBay.  Should they give up these hobbies or just turn down any profit?   The former is a form of dictating what employees do in their free time and the latter is just also unreasonable.

It is a big grey area.  I think that even companies which ban outside employment would not view such things as employment.   They would not object to staff managing to get a book published, although they would reasonably expect that it had not been written in the firm’s time.

When it comes to TV appearances and newspaper columns and even after-dinner speeches,  there is also an argument that it is an opportunity for an MP to promote their views and further the interests of their constituents, that they should take such opportunities where they do not interfere with normal business.  So that would mean not skipping debates and votes just to appear on TV for example.

A very grey area though.  It is obvious that being sequestered on Celebrity Big Brother for weeks is wrong and prevents normal MP work being done, and it is obvious (to me anyway) that being a guest on Have I got News For You, involving a few hours on a day when Parliament is not sitting is fine.   It is one of those things difficult to legislate for or define, you just know when something is right.

For my part I would be happy to voluntarily refrain from taking any sort of job, paid or unpaid that interfered with being an MP but if, for example,  I got the chance to go on Top Gear and drive their reasonably-priced car round the track I would want to have a go and if they normally for such apperances I would expect to get paid the same as anybody else.  I may then decide to donate that fee somewhere, but that would be my own business.

Taking a directorship or sitting on some committe for a company is totally out of order though, in my opinion.  That is partly for the reason that such things can take up time that we, as the public, are already paying for but mostly for the conflicts of interest involved.  I do not want an MP who is constrained from taking part in lots of debates and votes because they have a registered interest in that area.

Wrapping up

My own opinion is that there is room for a lot of improvement in the area of transparency and governance when it comes to MPs’ pay, expenses and outside interests, but I do not think that this Facebook group’s approach is constructive.

In fact I suspect it is motivated more by envy of the earnings than anything else, which is exacerbated by a suspicion that all MPs are getting an extra 5-figure sum in their back pockets through expenses, not realising that the money gets spent, in most cases.

Any employee of a normal company who was expected to do what MPs do would get a company car for all the travel, get all supplies given to them and get accommodation paid for.  Also anybody doing the hours that MPs do and with the skills that most MPs have would be paid significantly more than the average wage.

I do not know who is signed up to this group but I suspect that if they were suddenly faced with the need to do a job with well above average expectations on the average wage, which resulted in them spending most of that wage on being in the right place to do their job they would be resigning within months.  I also suspect that many of them earn more than the average salary themselves.


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