Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Parliament shouldn’t pay

The professionalisation of politics has taken it away from the people

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This year has seen a sombre centenary, which passed almost unnoticed. It was in August 1911 that Members of Parliament voted to pay themselves for the first time — an annual stipend of £400 a year. What was meant to open parliament to all ranks of society and allow men of low birth but high gifts to sit as MPs has proved a fine example of the law of unintended consequences. A seemingly modest innovation began the process which has culminated in what we now have: the professionalisation of politics and the creation of a new class of full-time but mediocre politicians. And instead of changing the House of Commons for the better, it has changed it in many ways very much for the worse.

By 1934, that £400 had become £600, £1,250 by 1954, £6,897 by 1978, and then a startling leap to £30,854 in 1993. It’s now £65,737, and plenty of MPs whine that they are underpaid. On top of that came the gradual, then explosive, increase of allowances and expenses, which was thrown into lurid spotlight by the scandal which erupted when details were published. Many of those MPs’ claims were outrageous, and some were actually criminal, as the courts have decided, but the worst thing was the whole system, even when used with comparative honesty, and what it implied.

Within my lifetime MPs had barely any expenses at all. From 1924 they were entitled to free rail travel to and from their constituencies, from 1953 a daily allowance of £2 in session, which became an annual £750 ‘parliamentary expenses’ in 1957. This gradually increased, until it reached the present ‘office costs’ allowance of £103,872. To this were added innumerable additional allowances for second homes, with the ‘John Lewis list’ to furnish them, which together notoriously and flagrantly became a means of supplementing an MP’s income.   

After the story was broken by the Daily Telegraph, there was a spasm of public rage, which many MPs quite failed to understand. Their collective response was that they had a ‘job’ to do which of its nature is demanding in time and money. One answer to that is that a Member of Parliament is or should be a deliberative legislator, in the sonorous old phrase, rather than a state official, and that being an MP should be, and once was, not a job but a privilege and an obligation. Another answer is that, to the extent that it can be called a job, it is one which most MPs perform very badly.

Writing in The Spectator, Jonathan Sumption has queried the coalition government’s planned reduction of the number of MPs, which ‘may make it more difficult for MPs to perform what most people now regard as their prime function, namely to serve as universal ombudsmen in dealings between their constituents and various remote and indifferent public authorities’. Moreover, reducing the size of the Commons ‘will certainly not make it more independent of the executive. The proportion of MPs on the ministerial payroll, already excessively large, will be larger still in a smaller legislature.’

And yet there are some begged questions here. It may be true that busying themselves with the interests of constituents is what MPs now spend most of their time doing, and that ‘constituency business’ has enormously increased as a proportion of an MP’s time. But must we welcome that, or even accept it? When such constituency business began to take up more of MPs’ time, after the war, it was deplored by both Attlee and Churchill, who rightly thought that a Member’s proper place was in the chamber of the House. During his 65-year parliamentary career, Churchill never had a home in any constituency he sat for, and it would be interesting to establish how often he actually visited Dundee in the years from 1908 to 1922 when he was its MP.

Nor were Labour MPs much different. When Roy Jenkins was Member for Stechford, he never had a home there and was, as Anthony Howard drily wrote, ‘More a once-a-month than a once-a-week visitor’ to Birmingham. Nor did Barbara Castle, on the other wing of the Labour party, ever have a home in Blackburn during the 34 years she represented it.

In response to public rage over their expenses, MPs complained about the exhausting demands made on them. But here is another begged question. No one has to stand for parliament and, once elected, an MP can do as much or as little ‘constituency business’ as he wants. There is no requirement to hold ‘surgeries’, as they are pretentiously called, or to deal with ‘case work’. When George Walden, a cerebral Tory, was MP for Buckingham for 14 years, before he gave up in frustration, he never encouraged his constituents to bring him their troubles. And when the Labour left-winger Tony Banks left the Commons in 2005 (sadly dying of cancer soon after) he was also frustrated, fed up, as he put it, with pretending to be a social worker, and not even a particularly good one.

This is not to say that those troubles are unimportant or trivial. Schools, hospitals, housing, public transport and policing are all fundamental local concerns, and locally is where they should be dealt with. It’s not an accident that the huge increase in MPs’ constituency business should have taken place in the age that has seen such a decay of local government. And this has also meant by definition that MPs have spent less time on what should be their proper task, of holding the executive to account and scrutinising legislation.

MPs also pride themselves on the work of parliamentary committees. But when the present system of departmental select committees was devised 30 years ago, Enoch Powell warned that this would only weaken the House itself as a debating and deliberative assembly. So it has proved. Some good work has been done by these committees but, especially since they have been televised, they have generated more heat than light, and afforded MPs an opportunity to play to the gallery and parade their charms (Louise Mensch!) rather than actually find anything out. They need, but sorely lack, people with the training and forensic skill to cross-examine evasive witnesses.

That might mean counsel attached to committees, as in Congress, or it might mean MPs who are themselves lawyers. But then the barrister-MP, once so prominent, is now an endangered species. Plenty of MPs would follow a day in court with an evening (often a long one) in the Commons. An extreme case was David Maxwell Fyfe, a subsequent Lord Chancellor, who was already a silk practising from chambers in Liverpool before he became an MP in 1935. For a time, he was ‘in Court until 5.15 p.m.,’ he later recalled, ‘then on the 5.25 from Liverpool or 5.45 from Manchester, reaching London at 9. Then in the House until after the 11 o’clock division, then back on the midnight train to the North.’   

If that’s not an example many would want to follow today, compare and contrast two advocates who became prime minister. Asquith was a flourishing barrister and journalist when returned to parliament in 1886. In 1892, Gladstone appointed him home secretary, most unusually, as he had never held any office. When the Liberal government fell in 1895, Asquith returned to a highly lucrative practice at the Bar (lucrative enough for him to lease a large house in Cavendish Square with a dozen servants — those were the days), and declined the opportunity to become Liberal leader in opposition because he couldn’t afford to give up his legal income.

When Tony Blair became an MP in 1983, he had been a barrister for a few years but gave up practice to become a Labour spokesman and full-time politician. By 1997 he was at No. 10, and not long afterwards, the Cabinet Secretary said to him in vexation, ‘Your trouble, Prime Minister, is that you’ve never run anything ’ — or done anything, one might add, in the way that so many people once came to politics rich in experience, as businessmen, soldiers, lawyers, trade union officials or even journalists.  

If MPs weren’t paid before 1911, ministers were, and very well: a secretary of state’s annual £5,000 was the equivalent of several hundred thousand now. But then there were far fewer of them. Here Sumption is entirely right, and the figures are startling. In 1900, there were 670 MPs. The entire salaried ministry was all of 60 strong, of whom 33 sat in the Commons, along with all of nine parliamentary private secretaries, the unofficial dogsbodies who fetch and carry for ministers and who, although unpaid, count as part of the ‘payroll vote’.

By 2000, the salaried ministry had increased from 60 to 106, of whom 82 were in the Commons, along with a preposterous 47 parliamentary private secretaries. The vast inflation has not been in the size of the Cabinet but the number of junior ministers. A Commons payroll vote which had totalled 42, or 6 per cent, of MPs in 1900 had become within 100 years 129 out of 659, or almost 20 per cent, a change of kind rather than degree. Far from addressing this, the coalition has in some ways exacerbated it, since it has to find not just jobs for the boys, but for two lots of boys, and girls — Tory and Liberal Democrat.  

That weakening of the relative position of legislature against executive has seen the Commons becoming more and more subservient. Some of us thought at the time that the invasion of Iraq was politically, morally and legally unjustified, and most British voters now think that the war was a disastrous folly. More to the point, I don’t believe that most Labour MPs, including members of the Cabinet, really wanted the war. The 139 Labour MPs who voted against the war in March 2003 constituted in any case the largest rebellion within a governing party since the Liberals split over Home Rule in 1886 and, if the proportionate size of the payroll vote had been the same as it was 100 years before — or quite possibly if MPs were still unpaid — Blair could not have taken us to war at all.

As for domestic legislation, a single example will suffice. No parliament which was guided by a sense of public duty, or was concentrating at all, would have passed the appalling (and gruesomely named) 2006 Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. This law, in knee-jerk response to a tabloid-fed panic about child abuse, effectively treats all adults who have any contact with children as potential paedophiles, and might have been designed to poison relations between young and old.

Those best placed to know pointed this out. Sir Roger Singleton is the former head of Barnardo’s who became chairman of the Independent Safeguarding Authority created by the Act and which was soon much criticised. ‘I’m surprised that some of the concerns now being expressed were not raised by legislators at the time,’ he said two years ago. ‘Do we not have parliamentarians whose job is to scrutinise this legislation?’ He might well ask. We have parliamentarians of a kind, but they are simply not doing their proper work.

Maybe there is a way forward — or backwards. By all means reduce the size of the Commons, but the number of ministers should be reduced still more, until the proportion of ministry to legislature is roughly the same as in 1911. Ending the payment of MPs is too much to hope for, although there is no reason at all why expenses should not be drastically reduced. And the best possible reform would be to meet the Chartists’ last, unfulfilled demand: ‘Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation... since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.’

Here is a cry on which all of us outside the ranks of the professional politicians should unite: give parliament back to the people!