There is something of a tension between what electors expect MPs to do and their acceptance of the need to provide the resources necessary to carry out their jobs. This to some extent is at the back of the expenses’ scandal. The job of the MP has become more demanding, and full time, but MPs were usually wary of voting themselves a commensurate increase in salary. Instead, what began as a modest allowance in 1972 was allowed to develop as a substantial additional cost allowance, to help maintain a second home, and this became seen to some degree as a supplement to Members’ salaries. Revelations in 2009 as to the way it was exploited by some Members undermined trust in the House. The reaction also serves to exacerbate the problem. Demands on MPs have not diminished but there is little chance of gaining public sympathy or support now for enhancing Members’ resources to carry out the functions the public expect them to fulfil. Any increase in allowances, even if for the purpose of paying staff, will be seen as feathering the Member’s nest, even though they gain nothing personally from it.
I was reminded of this tension when reading Chris Mullin’s latest volume, A Walk-On Part, embodying his diaries for 1994 to 1999. His entry for Thursday, 5 November 1998 reads:
‘At the Liaison Committee Archie Kirkwood circulated a paper suggesting that the Review Body on Senior Salaries be asked to consider paying select committee chairmen. The reaction was surprisingly hostile… Someone said it would only lead to more stories about MPs lining their pockets. Someone else said it would be divisive. The only person who spoke in favour was Rhodri Morgan. I’m in favour too, on the grounds that the status of select committee chairmen needs boosting if they are to stand up to the executive. We need to develop a separate career structure to make it attractive. Thoughts which, I am ashamed to say, I kept to myself since there were clearly no takers…’.
Agreement to pay chairs of select committees was later achieved, but I doubt if much headway would be made now if a similar proposal was made. The answer, in any event, may be to reduce MPs’ workload, especially their constituency work – much of what they do could be done by grievance-chasing agencies – but getting electors, or indeed MPs, to accept that is another matter.