Thursday, 11 July 2013

MPs - what's yours worth?

The hysterical press reaction to a proposal to increase the salary of MPs after the 2015 election explains exactly why we have got in a mess with this issue.

For decades, all governments have dodged the issue of setting a salary for MPs that reflects the level of responsibility they have in the (accurate) belief that there would be an outcry if they tried to do so. Instead, they allowed to develop a ‘wink and a nudge’ expenses system, the horrendous excesses of which don’t need to be rehearsed here, but you may remember second home flipping, duck houses, drained moats, dog food and dirty films. Many less-than-honourable members had to pay back significant sums and a few (some would say not enough) even ended up getting up close and personal with the prison system.

So after that scandal, Parliament decided in 2009 to take itself out of the process altogether, and set up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to determine salaries, expenses and pension arrangements. IPSA has now done what it’s paid to do, and come up with a proposal following research and consultation, that MPs salaries should be increased by about 10% after the next election. There will also be some changes to expenses and pensions to offset in part the additional cost.

Politicians – many of them privately very wealthy –  are queuing up to deplore these proposals. Of course they are not in a position to turn the proposals down, because they took themselves out of the decision making process. This situation has led various tweeters to criticise the Prime Minister for lacking authority/backbone/both. I would refer such critics to the Law of Unintended Consequences. If you give power away, the people you give it to may come to decisions with which you disagree.

Imagine the furore if IPSA had concluded that MPs were, in fact, overpaid, and proposed a 10% reduction. Would these same politicians be so keen to appear on TV saying they wouldn’t accept IPSA’s findings? I very much doubt it. And the howls of media derision would turn to paeans of praise.

So here are my thoughts on this thorny topic:

The salary paid to politicians should be a fair reflection of the level of responsibility they take and appropriate comparators. Calls for payment by performance are nonsense. That is judged through the ballot box, and the power of recall if it ever gets enacted. I don’t know what that salary level is: that’s why we have IPSA. Personally, I wouldn’t be unhappy if that salary level was £100k, but with strings attached, which I’m coming on to.

Once set, the pay of MPs should be adjusted annually in line with whatever comparator group is identified. The Civil Service is the obvious one, but their may be others.

While no-one wants politicians who are motivated solely by the salary, if we want intelligent and capable people to run the country they must be properly remunerated. Former GP Dr Sarah Woollaston MP has said that she took a £40k a year pay cut to become an MP – not many will be that altruistic. And although I do understand that for the majority of the population a salary of £66k is a king’s ransom, for a large number it really isn’t. Some of the journalists baying for IPSA blood wouldn’t get out of bed for £66k. If salary levels are not right, we will end up with a House of Commons made up of the very poor and the very rich.

Everyone who works for an employer is entitled not to be out of pocket for doing their jobs. There is nothing wrong with a properly managed scheme of expenses to reimburse costs incurred wholly and necessarily incurred in the course of their duties, and those calling for MPs to bear all of their own costs are being disingenuous.

Being an MP should be a full time job with proper office hours. It shouldn’t be a hobby or an act of philanthropy. It is not acceptable for MPs to spend their mornings in court or running businesses and then popping into the House for a few hours. The level of pay should reflect that.

The rules on conflict of interest need to be thoroughly examined. The scandal of the number of politicians with business interests in the private health sector, for example, should never be allowed to happen again.

So there you have it. I realise that this will not be a popular view but it’s how I see it. Feel free to disagree!

Friday, 5 July 2013

It's all in the question...

Two Roman Catholic men were having a vigorous discussion in a pub. They were debating whether smoking was a sin or not. They decided to write to the Bishop and ask him to settle the matter.

John wrote first, and asked this question: “Bishop, is it a sin to smoke a cigarette while I’m saying my prayers?”  The Bishop wrote back swiftly, saying, “Yes, of course it is. When you’re praying you must focus on your prayers.”

Alan wrote the next week, putting the question slightly differently: “Bishop, is it a sin if I pray to God while I’m having a cigarette?” The Bishop was quick to reassure him, writing, “No, it is not. We should take every opportunity to pray to the Lord.”

As on so many occasions, the answer you get depends on the question you ask and, of course, who you ask.

Every day the media carries the results of some new survey, usually revealing some ‘shocking’ new insight into public opinion. Unless the survey has been carried out by a reputable pollster, and more often it’s some glossy magazine trying to boost their sales, we should be very sceptical, and always ask ourselves “What was the question, and who did they ask?

On a related matter, news stories often include headline statistics which, on further investigation, may not be all that they seem. For example, some newspapers specialise in telling us which products cause, or don’t cause cancer. So a headline that reads “Eating butter increases cancer risk by 20%” (I’m making that up, of course) would be pretty startling, and not a little frightening.

However, if you found out that the cancer in question currently had a risk rate of 1 in 100, and that eating butter might increase your risk to 1.2 in 100, you might be a little less startled.

The old saw that there are lies, damned lies and statistics doesn’t have to be true, if you question everything you read before believing it.