Is an MP worth £66,396 a year? How about £67,060? £74,000? Hard to say, but the general perception is that parliamentarians are fiscally well-endowed but morally bankrupt. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Association (Ipsa) doesn't agree, and its chairman, Ian Kennedy, has recommended that MPs should indeed get £74,000 a year for what they do from 2015.
There's been a lot of anger on both sides over this recommendation, and a lot of nonsense said about it too. The argument that the expenses scandal happened because we don't pay our MPs enough is a particularly ludicrous one - it was a straightforward case of them taking whatever they could get - and Ipsa's suggested reforms to the perks package MPs get are sensible. However, the salary question is much more complex. This isn't because it's a fiddly or difficult conundrum, but because it has come to represent a broader argument over the value of politicians. How do you compare the importance of an MP to that of a headteacher, a nurse, or any other public servant? You can't come to any rational conclusions, one way or the other, but these kind of comparisons have been sprayed all over the place by commentators for the past couple of weeks.
There's a graph on the BBC's website comparing an MP's salary to that of a headteacher, a police chief superintendent, a colonel, a human resources director for the NHS and a senior civil servant (all of whom earn more). What the hell does this achieve? Nothing. Is a colonel worth more than an MP? Depends who you ask, doesn't it. Does a headteacher have more responsibility than an MP? Impossible to measure.
The whole debate over MPs' pay has been skewed towards measurements of comparative value, which can only ever be subjective, and criticisms of politicians as money-grabbing scum, which again doesn't really get us anywhere, even if it is a fun practice in which to engage. What we need to be talking about as a country is what sort of people we want representing us, and whether salary hikes are the best way to attract these people.
An MP should be well-rewarded for what they do. It is a job that brings a great deal of pressure and responsibility to those who wish to follow this particular career path. Furthermore, as Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, argued, the salary for an MP should be high enough to ensure that ordinary people, rather than merely those with 'independent wealth', can afford to run for office too.
Yet at the same time, the expenses system shouldn't be an open trapdoor through which MPs can siphon off whatever they fancy. That's a structure that attracts precisely the wrong kind of candidate for the position. Similarly, they shouldn't be allowed to hold any other jobs. It doesn't help the image of politics, or the political process, when MPs are also corporate directors or advisers or God knows what. An MP, no matter what they say, doesn't need a second job to keep in touch with the real world, or to widen their perspective. People who enter public service need to recognise that it is not just a job, but a duty, and that it demands a certain level of commitment, effort and focus, rather than just three days a week, with the other two spent in City skyscrapers.
If MPs are going to be paid well, then they should do what the public employs them to do, and nothing else. I really don't think anyone would have any major complaints about paying MPs more money if it meant that they focused solely and absolutely on their duties to constituents. There will always be a sub-section of society who think MPs should be paid tuppence-ha'penny and go to work in rags, but generally, the public wants representatives in Parliament who do what that word suggests - who represent them. Their salaries should be high enough to ensure that truly representative candidates will have the means to do the job effectively - because surely, that's what we all want, effective governance.
It is difficult to make this argument, especially when ordinary public and private sector workers are having their pay packets squeezed by falling real incomes and the rising cost of living. Yet that doesn't mean that, because the government's done the wrong thing by all those people, they should then bow to political pressure over this issue. A parliament that had MPs who only had the interests of its constituents at heart, not those of their lobbyists and corporate employers, might have done a better job of protecting the vulnerable against the cuts.
Perhaps if proper, constructive reforms of the pay and perks MPs receive was undertaken, we'd end up with a House of Commons filled with parliamentarians who understand the needs of their constituents better, who do their job more effectively, and who represent them, in the true meaning of the word.