Alexander Lyon – 1978 Speech on MP Salaries

Below is the text of the speech made by Alexander Lyon, the then Labour MP for York, in the House of Commons on 28 July 1978.

Membership of the House is unique, but that does not make it any easier for us to make a unique valuation of our worth. It falls to us to do so by the nature of the means by which we are paid. We have to decide, though perhaps on the advice of some committee, how much we shall pay ourselves, and there is no escape from that.

If I could believe that the 630 Members of Parliament had the political courage and virility to take a decision about their worth in complete isolation from the valuation of any other job in the country, I should be happy to leave it at that. I accept the difficulties of trying to tie ourselves to a particular status in the Civil Service, to the status of a company chairman or any other analogue anywhere else. But the reason why we turn our attention to that is that we have lacked the courage in the past to say to people that membership of the House of Commons, although it is unique and although it is an inestimable privilege to be here, is nevertheless a factor which we have to consider in deciding the amount of money which we are paid since, like anyone else who goes out to work, we are dependent for the standard of living ​which we provide not just for ourselves but for our families upon the salaries which we receive.

It is right that we should make a position for ourselves which allows those Members—their number is increasing—who decide that they must be professional Members of Parliament and have no other income to live adequately upon those resources without having to burden themselves and their families with concern about finance on top of all the other concerns which we take upon ourselves as Members of Parliament.

Accepting that, I should be quite happy to make a judgment of our own worth and tell people that, if they did not like it, that was what we thought appropriate and at any subsequent election they must make whatever choice they liked about our valuation of ourselves. But I know that that is not how the House works, and still less how the process of government works.

For that reason, we have tried to find alternative ways of reducing the political tension which arises whenever we decide what we should be paid. We have tried the advisory committee. We are now suggesting another way—tying ourselves to Civil Service rates of pay so that automatically we get a payment which we do not have to settle for ourselves.

If hon. Members feel that that is an easier way of settling a valuation of our services, so be it. I should go along with it. But I think that to pay ourselves the rate of an assistant secretary is to some extent demeaning. I remember that when I was a junior Minister, and only a junior Minister, the lowest form of Civil Service life allowed through my door was an assistant secretary, and he was allowed in only in exceptional circumstances. When I recognised that when he came in through the door he was at that time being paid substantially more than I was being paid to take the decisions on which he was advising, it seemed to me that it was a bit demeaning to talk about that, but at the present time an assistant secretary on the full rate is being paid about double the rate at which we are paid.

We cannot be immune to that. It is not true that civil servants will categorise us, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) said, according to the amount ​ of money we receive and that a permanent secretary will be dismissive of us simply because we are paid less than he is. If we were paid a lot more, he would be dismissive of us. The real reason why he is dismissive of us is that we do not assert the power we have. Indeed, my main concern in this matter is that we are Parliament. It is not for us to wait upon the Lord President of the Council. It is not for us to wait for the Cabinet or Lord Boyle, or, indeed, the assistant secretaries or the Civil Service unions. We are Parliament. If we really had the dignity which the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) says we have, we should be impervious to the criticisms of outside bodies of that kind. We should decide how much we were to be paid.

I had not intended to refer to the speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South, which seemed to me to be beneath contempt, but, when he expresses populist sentiments of the kind which we heard from him this morning, I recall how much he charges for his television appearances, and I take it ill from him when he talks about hacks. Incidentally, I noticed that when he uttered his populist sentiments the hacks disappeared from the Press Gallery in order to put into tomorrow’s newspapers what one Member of the House thinks about 629 others. I do not regard that as improving the standard and dignity of the House of Commons. Moreover, one may add that among those hacks who disappeared gleefully to report that we should not be paid more than £6,000 a year some will not be able to report it in The Sun as they are on strike because they were paid only a 10 per cent. increase on their £13,000 a year and they want a lot more. They are the real hacks of Fleet Street.

Therefore, we need not apologise for saying that we ought to be paid a proper salary—and by a proper salary I mean something which will allow a man to be a professional Member of Parliament and live on his salary without having constantly to consider his own finances as opposed to the other issues which he has to consider.

In deciding what that value is, the kind of role we have is an important matter. When I see the Badge Messengers who bring us our messages wearing their white ties and tails, I remember that I was ​ told that they wear that dress because they are the descendants here of the butlers who used to come here in the nineteenth century to prepare the meals for their masters who came down for their evening sojourn in this place.

But that was an entirely different kind of Member from the Member who is here today. I recall the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) once told me that, after his first arrival in the House in 1945, he went to King’s Cross station to catch the train back to his constituency and there met a Member of Parliament—who shall be nameless—who said “I am just making my annual visit to my constituency.” None of us could get away with that now, whatever the size of our majority.

The truth is that, whatever the right hon. Member for Down, South thinks—I am little surprised at his recollections—we are all conscious that we are working harder and we are doing a more professional job, even if we are not full-time professionals. We are doing a more professional job in the House, and we are doing it with much less support in the way of services, facilities and accommodation than is enjoyed by most other people who are doing a professional job.

I want to put this matter into its context. My judgment is that the House of Commons is no real challenge to the power of bureaucracy and the power of Government in this country as at present constituted. We must revise the way in which we work so that we can take a real share in decision-making. We cannot go on with the tradition which has come down to us since the sixteenth century that we simply correct Government decisions after they have been made—that we are the better after the event. The fact that we have the party structure and that we have a systematised way of expressing opposition, which simply means that we can delay things for a little while but in the end the power of the Whips will decide, means that the decisions when taken by the Cabinet are almost always irrevocable.

I accept that in this Parliament—I see my right hon. Friend the Lord President looking a little pained—things have been slightly different because it has not been possible to amass the majority quite as ​ easily as in past Parliaments, but overall the Government get their way. They got their way last night in circumstances which seemed to be quite unexpected. It is the unexpected for a Government not to get their way, and as long as that continues decisions when in the Cabinet are almost always irrevocable.

Therefore, if we wish to influence the Government and, more important, if we wish to check the power of the bureaucracy, we must be involved in decision-taking before the decisions are made. That requires that we go over to the kind of powerful Select Committees which amass the evidence and evaluate it before it goes to Ministers and before the final decision is taken. This calls for a Member of Parliament entirely different in kind from the Member we have today. Such a Member must be here more often than we are. He must have support services in the way of research and staff which we do not have. He must be able to work during the day and have his nights off. That means that we have to alter the times at which we sit.

We shall not get that sort of hon. Member on the present part-time basis. I admit that I am a part-time Member in that sense. I do not regard myself as doing a part-time job for my constituents, but I have another source of income. I hate having it and would much prefer to be a professional Member. The only reason why I have the outside income is that I cannot live on the present income of an hon. Member and I regard the other job as a sort of insurance.

If we were given a proper salary and were paid properly for a period after we left the House, none of us could ask for more and we could all become professional Members. I do not think that it is necessary for us to have a ruling that everyone should be a professional Member, but our hours, means of working, pay and resources should be based upon the notion that that is what we are, and I hope that the Boyle committee will evaluate our work on that basis alone. If it tries to evaluate our work on the basis that some of us have other sources of income, that will be an injustice to those who are already professional Members.

We are also discussing the question of the new parliamentary building.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. We are not debating the new building at present. That debate will come on later.

Mr. Lyon

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In those circumstances, I shall not say much about the new building, but it is part of the whole business of what sort of evaluation we have of hon. Members. We must not have the sort of evaluation that says that we cannot be housed in proper facilities with proper accommodation, but we must allow civil servants and anyone else to be housed in such accommodation. Indeed, we make it an offence for employers not to house their employees in proper accommodation, yet we bury ourselves in little holes down Whitehall or round the back of the Jewel Tower. That demeans the role that we should have.

I support the notion that we should be paid properly and should have proper back-up services. We should not be so dependent upon our allowances for secretarial assistance and so on. These should be provided for us because of our need for them rather than by our having to claim them. That is a better way of dealing with our status in this place.