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Party leaders must stand their ground on MPs' pay

I am sick to death of MPs' pay rises.

The issue seems to return faster than the seasons and is never resolved. The arguments are worn smooth with repetition: "Greedy b*******", shouts the electorate. Proposed rises are obscene, say party leaders as they run for cover. "I'll refuse mine", says one goody-goody. "I'll give mine away," says another.

Give away a pay rise? It flies in the face of nature. We just know it is hypocrisy writ large, especially when two-thirds of the House of Commons say something different in private. They complain they are underpaid. They say they are slipping down the pay rankings. They feel aggrieved, undervalued.

So, where do they stand against other professions and jobs? According to salary comparisons drawn up by the National Office of Statistics in November 2012, they rank 16 out of 469. They slot in below doctors and above senior police officers.

The proposed increase to £74,000 would place them at number six under financial managers and airline pilots but above mining production managers. (I found journalists at number 99. Personally, I couldn't care less who I am above or below just as long as I can pay the bills.)

I used to mind about MPs' pay. I really did. Now I look at the proposal to raise their salaries in 2015 by 11% and remind myself it will cost the taxpayer £4.6 million. To put that in context, the bill for the trams in Edinburgh is £700m-plus. So it will take 150 years for the pay rise to cost as much.

In terms of value for money, it's arguable a properly functioning Parliament and an end to the corrosive issue of pay is the better deal.

Besides, a glance at the small print reveals the rise will be coupled with a reduction in expenses allowances (no more free tea and biscuits), a downgrading of the final-salary pension scheme and MPs paying more in contributions, as well as a squeeze on resettlement grants when MPs lose their seats or retire. They will also have to pay their own TV licence in their second home. And they won't be able to charge for taxis before 11pm.

Handing the decision to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was designed to take the political heat out of the argument. It hasn't. To IPSA members the proposed salary rise may seem modest since most of them earn more than £100,000.

It looks very different to an electorate where public sector workers are suffering a 1% cap in salary rises, where people have seen colleagues face redundancy, where the struggling have been hit with the bedroom tax and the disabled are being asked to lift up their wheelchairs and work.

Meanwhile, the young have been told they can't claim a state pension until they are nearing three score and 10.

It's tough for an awful lot of people. Far from supporting MPs, some of comments I've read online suggest the state of the country is an argument for sacking the lot of them. No wonder David Cameron is ducking and weaving in reaction to IPSA's 11%.

No wonder First Minister Alex Salmond is declaring the proposed rise "ludicrous" and making loud noises about severing the link between pay at Holyrood and Westminster.

I hope they both front up to this. It's a matter of leadership and - unpleasant though it will be - sometimes it falls to a politician to stand up and make a case for an unpopular proposal.

For this matter needs dealing with once and for all. We have a price to pay for democracy and this is probably it. There is a balance to strike between paying enough to attract bright people who could command large salaries in any field and a salary so large that the greedy see it as a gravy train.

Parliament needs to pay enough so that - as Jack Straw said - able people from modest backgrounds can afford to pursue politics at the highest level. An income pitched low may make both sides of the house a preserve of the rich and the middle classes.

Let's remind ourselves what our elected representatives do for their stipend. They have parliamentary duties which include attending the chamber, taking part in debates and voting. These take preparation. They must be in close contact with their constituencies - sometimes at a considerable distance. They conduct surgeries, make speeches, attend functions and dinners. It sounds great and maybe it is for the first year. After that it's hard work.

There's a lot of commuting. Family time is squeezed. Weekends aren't their own. They are under constant scrutiny and there is no job security - they must stand for re-election. Many work a 70-hour week.

I'd do it for the £58,000 an MSP currently receives. I'd trek to London for the proposed £74,000. Who wouldn't if politics interested them? But that's the nub of the matter. For us to maintain - or even build - a high parliamentary standard, the package needs to be attractive.

And one of the biggest attractions of the IPSA recommendation is that the matter will be done and dusted for years to come. The proposal is that the increase takes effect in May 2015 and thereafter MPs' salaries rise in line with average UK salaries.

The reason we are where we are is there is never an acceptable time for MPs to award themselves a pay rise. (The last sizeable hike seems to have been in 1996.) The legacy of never facing up to the issue showed in May of this year when IPSA conducted an anonymous survey. In it, 69% of MPs complained they were underpaid. They wanted a 32% rise.

A rise of 11% may have their leaders running for cover but it could have been a lot worse. And now we seem to be getting into the absurd position of MPs competing with each other to say they won't accept the extra salary (when IPSA's recommendation doesn't require parliamentary approval).

So, what will these MPs do? Will they give the money to charity? For how long - one year, two, three? Will there be another annual controversy over pay when journalists demand proof of charitable giving from MPs who said they would give away the 11% increase? It's an invidious prospect.

So, too, is the noise coming from Holyrood. The mood music is about breaking the pay link between the Commons and Holyrood set down in the Scotland Act - MSPs receive 87.5% of an MP's salary. With cross-party agreement, Mr Salmond is making a distinction between upstanding Holyrood and greedy Westminster. But should the connection be broken? I think not.

Yesterday, the talk was of linking any future increases in MSPs' salaries to those in the public sector. The consequence could be an ever widening salary gap between the parliaments if the union remains.

Will Scotland then have to institute its own version of IPSA to redress the balance? What if it recommends a large pay rise for MSPs? The controversy will return. Spare us. Better to bite the bullet now and deal with it once and for all.

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Local government

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