The Parliament Act 1911 is often remembered for its role in reigning in the House of Lords, and establishing the elected Commons as the dominant force in the United Kingdom legislature. Without a doubt, this development was of immense importance, but the statute had a wider function in rendering the British constitutional process more inclusive and democratic. For the first time, it awarded a salary to MPs, which was a game-changing move, because it opened the doors of Parliament to people who needed to work for a living. Prior to this, men (of course at this time it was still exclusively men) could only sit in the House of Commons if they had enough private money to support themselves.
In practical terms, this situation excluded huge swathes of the population from participating in politics at this level, which is a good example of how the absence of action on a concrete issue can have a powerful effect, sometimes one which benefits existing vested interests. In addressing the systemic exclusion of certain groups, it is not sufficient to simply refrain from actively imposing discriminatory policies, it is important to consider practical barriers. There had been debates around remunerating MPs going back to at least the XVIII century, but up until the Parliament Act 1911, these had always run into the sand. The absence of legislation to grant MPs an income stream had kept Westminster as the exclusive domain of the social elite for centuries, and had achieved this just as effectively as a positive requirement to demonstrate a certain level of wealth.
It is key to highlight this in the context of modern debates about MPs and earning. If Members of Parliament were not paid, then our legislature would belong only to the affluent, and those with rich backers. It would also potentially make the House of Commons even more susceptible to corruption and undue influence. If an MP without private means was sponsored by a private patron or an organisation, then those doing the back-rolling would, in all probability, control their voting choices.
Of course, acknowledging that MPs need to be paid something leaves open the question of how much is appropriate. At present, they earn £84, 144, which for context, is roughly comparable to a consultant surgeon or physician in the NHS. It is also true that MPs are entitled to claim a variety of expenses on top of this basic salary, and scandals around the use and abuse of this arrangement are a perennial feature of British political life. Nevertheless, setting aside the specific question of legitimate, and more to the point, illegitimate use of expenses, there is a debate to be had about the appropriate level of pay for Parliamentarians.
On the one hand, the average earnings for adults in the UK is £31,772, and MPs are receiving almost triple this amount. Therefore, some might argue that it would be more appropriate for them to be paid a salary closer to the sum typically received by their constituents. At the same time, it could be countered that MPs work long and demanding hours, and are expected to process complex information and engage with nuanced debates, meaning that their work is in keeping with a demanding professional role. They also have to endure a high degree of job insecurity, as re-election can never be guaranteed, and in some swing seats their position is especially precarious. On top of all of which, there is a significant loss of privacy and family time, and a genuine danger in terms of personal security.
All things considered, there is scope for reasonable people to disagree about how much MPs should be financially rewarded for their role. However, the basic principle that they should earn enough money to open the doors of the Chamber to all citizens, regardless of background, is something which should be affirmed. The Parliament Act introduced a suite of reforms to help the United Kingdom’s Constitution become more truly inclusive and participatory. This still very much remains a work in progress, but we cannot afford to lose sight of this goal, and it should also be borne in mind when there are wider debates about the working practices of the House of Commons, e.g. how flexible are the hours for those with children or other caring responsibilities? Is there a toxic and masculine, or religiously exclusive culture around bars and drinking alcohol? Do we deal appropriately with issues around harassment or discrimination in the workplace? If people in 1911 were prepared to radically restructure the treatment of MPs, perhaps we should be willing to do the same in the XXI century. After all, the same basic question is at stake: do we want the people representing us to be drawn from a spectrum of society, or only a certain group?
“MPs Salaries-What do they earn? Is it too much?” Politics.co.uk https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/mps-salary/ (20/2/22)
“Pay and expenses for MPs” UK Parliament https://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/pay-mps/
“Pay scales for Consultants in England” The British Medical Association https://www.bma.org.uk/pay-and-contracts/pay/consultants-pay-scales/pay-scales-for-consultants-in-england