Listening to the House of Comments podcast this morning on the subject of MPs' pay, I was left thinking that there must be a better solution. In trying to set a pay rate for them, we are trapped between the rock of public opinion (which would prefer to see them in sack-cloth and ashes) and the hard place of attracting the right people.
The argument goes that if we set the level too low, then "only millionaires can afford to be an MP". That is palpably wrong; as Jennie Rigg pointed out, there are many for whom the current level of pay would be more than adequate, if only they could afford to campaign (which Mark rightly pointed out is a separate problem). Yet there are many for whom an MP salary would be a pay cut. Lucky as they are to be well-off, we must accept that, in practice, they will have settled into their current level of income and made arrangements based on that. They will have mortgages and, probably, children in fee-paying schools*. Dropping their income to £60k or so is not an option. We are (like it or not) ruling these people out of politics.
Above them are the real toffs, who can afford to "go without" an income for the time being or who have investment income that will continue regardless. They can afford politics. So politics becomes the preserve of toffs and of those on a low income but with a backer who can bankroll their campaign -i.e. union officials.
So it is the upper middle classes that we are (in effect) excluding. The professional classes**. The successful businesspeople. The people with experience of running organisations. The people who might actually make competent Ministers...
We therefore need to think laterally. It struck me, why not pay MPs what they earned before they were elected? After all, that was the last independent measure of what that MP was worth.
Needless to say, expenses should then be limited to those allowable under HMRC rules. If those rules are good enough for the Commoners, they are good enough for the Commons.
There could be some safeguards. For example, we could set an upper and a lower limit, such as the median salary and ten times the median salary, to avoid gross distortions. For longstanding MPs, their pay could trend towards a central figure of (say) 3 times the median salary - adjusting by 10-20% of the difference for each Parliamentary term. To avoid anomalous results, we could average their income over the previous Parliamentary term, or some other period.
Think about it; it would encourage people to get experience of life before entering politics. It would encourage them to make proper and true tax returns (assuming we use those to guage their past income). It would enable all sections of society to take part. It would remove the annual argument over pay; if you think you're not paid well enough, then leave, get a better job, and come back!
It would also be non-partisan; define income as earned income and the Conservative uber-toffs will be on the same bottom rung as some of the Labour shop stewards.
*an odd euphemism. I can't find any schools that will pay me a fee for sending my children there...
**yes, I admit that includes patent attorneys. I, however, have no ambitions in that direction ;-)