I FEAR that I am going to disappoint those of you who have contacted me to express disgust at the proposed 11 per cent pay rise of MPs and asked me to endorse your belief that our Parliamentarians should see their salaries cut by a corresponding amount.
Even though the timing could not be more crass, especially when it is the same MPs who are expecting public sector employees to embrace wage restraint for the remainder of this decade, I actually think that our MPs are under-paid and that the priority is attracting better legislators – irrespective of whether the EU has lessened Westminster’s workload.
If people from all sections of society are to be tempted to stand for Parliament, then the salary needs to reflect the level of responsibility – there can be no more onerous task than setting the laws of the land and deciding whether to commit Britain’s Armed Forces to war – and the inflated cost of having to be based in London.
The same people lamenting the rise are, invariably, the self-same individuals who bemoan the calibre of MPs the next day.
But if the pay grade of backbenchers is to rise £7,600 to £74,000 – the controversial recommendation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – then the opportunity should be taken to attach certain conditions that extend beyond funding this hike via changes to the pension entitlements of MPs.
First, this increase should be phased in over five years – the duration of the next Parliament.
Second, it should be accompanied by clarity over whether it is acceptable for MPs to have outside earnings – I am deeply uncomfortable that Tory MP Stephen Phillips earned nearly £750,000 last year as a result of 1,700 hours work as a barrister. His priority should be to his constituents.
Third, there needs to be a review of office costs. My advice is that every MP is entitled to one secretary and one assistant funded by the taxpayer. Their parties, however, should pay for the salaries of any additional staff.
Fourth, expenses. Maximum entitlements should be set, depending on the distance between a MP’s constituency and Westminster. There needs to be an end to the vast differences in second home heating costs claimed by politicians from neighbouring seats. Transparency is non-negotiable.
Fifth, the cost of politics. MPs are paying the price for the failure of successive governments to reform pay and, instead, allow the expenses system to mask this failure. But the dismay over the 11 per cent rise also comes at a time when local council leaders can earn more than a backbencher – being a councillor is now a career rather than a voluntary role and some town hall chief executives earn much more than the Prime Minister.
Of course, politicians do themselves no favours with their silly antics at Prime Minister’s Questions – Parliament is now at its best and most effective in select committee hearings, or when Westminster Hall hosts consensual and constructive backbench debates.
As such, it would be counter-productive to oppose Ipsa’s recommendations without considering the bigger picture. Parliament has been left unreformed for too long. But it does mean MPs being prepared to embrace change – and that is the million dollar question.
ON the 30th anniversary of the first televising of Parliamentary proceedings, it is ironic that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls continues to be criticised for his dreadful response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement.
Such mocking is not new – I can remember those occasions under the last Labour government when Osborne’s response to key budget announcements was ridiculed for being lightweight.
Yet the Morley and Outwood MP did himself no favours. The reason? He fell into the trap of trying to articulate a response that contained the perfect soundbite for the TV news bulletins rather than having the foresight to deliver a more philosophical speech that gave clues about how Labour intends to adapt its financial policy to meet these changing economic circumstances.
And that, in essence, is my regret about the televising of Parliament. Too many contributions are designed with the cameras in mind. If politicians were prepared to put forward serious arguments in a mature and measured way, coverage of proceedings would have to switch from personalities to policy.
I HAVE a lot of sympathy for Iain Duncan Smith, the quiet man of politics who is trying to overhaul welfare spending. It’s not his fault that the technology is changing faster than the senior Tory’s proposed reforms that are intended to make work pay. This is a legacy of decades of political inertia, a claim made on these pages on Thursday by former Batley MP Elizabeth Peacock who blamed Margaret Thatcher for increasing welfare spending.
It is also to the credit of IDS that he is trying to iron out technological glitches before his changes are rolled out – how many times have you heard of politicians pressing ahead with reforms willy-nilly in the face of expert opinion?
The problem is that the out-of-work want the IDS shake-up to fail because they may have to get off their backsides and put a shift in. They should not be afraid to get their hands dirty. For, as high street veteran Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief executive, observed this week: “I started off with pretty well nothing. I did a lot of menial jobs when I was young. I didn’t worry about the status of the job – I was more worried about the fact I had a job.”
Is there a chance that he can now work alongside IDS? For it is a profound message that politicians, even those as able as Duncan Smith, still struggle to get across.
AS the world prepares to say a final farewell tomorrow to Nelson Mandela, there has been some comment about the saturation coverage ahead of the burial of South Africa’s first black president.
Yet, in contrast to some leaders, Mandela and his legacy touched the consciences of people of all ages – whether it be those who followed his journey from prisoner to president, or younger generations who simply regarded ‘Madiba’ as a global grandfather.
If the discussion now under way about Mandela and his place in history enables more people to become politically aware in terms of world affairs, and the social injustices inflicted by apartheid, then this can only benefit the causes of freedom and democracy in the longer term.
One of the most significant men of the 20th century, his legacy and values mean that Nelson Mandela, even in death, could still be one of the most influential figures of the 21st century.
I hope so.
IF you want to know why legendary jump jockey AP McCoy would be a fitting winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award tomorrow night in Leeds, consider his reaction to the media attention following his record-breaking 4,000th win: “In whatever I’ve achieved, I’ve always thought that I should be doing better.”