David Stoddart – 1978 Speech on MP Salaries

Below is the text of the speech made by David Stoddart, the then Labour MP for Swindon, in the House of Commons on 28 July 1978.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is about the smartest operator in this place. He has shown today how smart he is. He appears to have the argument both ways. He blames this House, quite wrongly by his own standards, for inflation, yet he does not want to give it the credit for doubling living standards over the past 25 years. That is sleight of hand.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s figures, a salary of £1,000 a year for an MP in 1950, allowing for inflation, would be £4,782 today. But if we doubled that, as everyone else’s standard of living has doubled—for which we can take some credit—the figure becomes £9,564, or almost exactly the figure proposed as the pensionable salary. So by his own argument the right hon. Gentleman confirms that the pensionable salary is correct. I hope that he will support it. He cannot say that this House is responsible for inflation and should penalise itself while at the same time refusing the House the credit for doubling living standards.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken, with respect. It is perfectly possible to believe and to argue that Governments can and do cause inflation but that they cannot and do not cause an increase in the standard of living. There is no inconsistency between the two propositions. They may or may not be right, but they are not inconsistent.

Mr. Stoddart

I think that there is great inconsistency between them. The right hon. Gentleman has argued that rapid inflation does the most damage to the standard of living. I have heard him argue that, and he is probably correct. So there is no inconsistency in what I say.

I have been unable to discover the figures for professional salaries paid in 1950 as compared with today, but I have found the figures for the average manual wage. In 1950, it was £7·52 a week, and in 1977 it was £72·89. An increase of 10 per cent. would give us a figure of over £79, representing an elevenfold increase in money terms. I am sure that ​ hon. Members would settle for that kind of increase on the £1,000 that they enjoyed in 1950. So the right hon. Gentleman is caught up in his own argument.

But there is something more serious about his attitude. It strikes at the very roots of representative democracy, which I know he supports and wants to continue. On his argument, it is certain that there is no possibility of representative democracy in this country. It would preclude many people from giving their talents.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) mentioned the responsibility of all men and women to their families. If he had a family, a teacher, a doctor, a civil engineer, or an architect could not afford to give up his profession for the salary paid here—

Mr. Alan Clark

Yes he could; he could take a cut in his standard of living.

Mr. Stoddart

Yes, but he would also have enforced a cut in the standard of living of his wife and family, which he has no right to do.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

It is not that he could not do it so much as that more and more people will not do it. That is why we shall get fewer people of high ability from the professions, simply because it is not worth their while. More than that, it means such a cut in their standard of living that they will not put up with it.

Mr. Stoddart

My hon. Friend is right. The House would be denying itself the wide scale of experience and ability that is essential to a representative Chamber if it is to check the Executive. For that reason the argument of the right hon. Member for Down, South was wrong. If it were put into effect it would endanger the democracy that he, above all, wishes to defend.

The right hon. Gentleman discounts the attitude of people towards salaries. He believes that people have more respect for Members of Parliament or Members of any other Assembly if they do it for nothing—if, in fact, they do not put any value at all upon their services. I ask him to look at the respect with which county councillors and district councillors are sometimes held by the electorate. I ​ think he will find that the lack of remuneration may have something to do with the low respect—not justified—in which the electorate holds such people.

The right hon. Gentleman also discounts the differences between salaries paid in this legislature and those paid in legislatures elsewhere. I agree that because France happens to pay three times as much to its legislators as we pay ours is not necessarily an argument for paying us three times as much as we are getting. Nevertheless, there must be a relationship; indeed, there is. I repeat that the value that people put on an institution may well be—it is not always so—related to the value that the institution puts upon itself. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the United States Congress may be held in greater esteem than this House.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his attitude, particularly bearing in mind that next year we shall be electing yet another Assembly—one which neither of us wants. It will have an effect on salaries paid in this House, and may have an effect on the regard in which this House is held throughout the country.

I believe that the Government and the House have failed to consider Members’ salaries in a proper way for a very long period. The House of Commons has been far too frightened of the electorate and has put far too low a value on the job that it does for the community. I hope that we shall reach a new era—I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has decided that the matter should be referred to the Boyle committee—when the salaries of Members cease to become a political issue, in the sense that they have been a political issue over the years. I do not think that they can cease entirely to be a political issue, but I hope that some means will be found, whether by relating the salary to salaries in the Civil Service or to the salaries of circuit judges, or what have you, by which the salaries of Members of this House can be settled without a political battle and without Members being criticised in the press over the business that we have of fixing our own salaries.

I hope that these motions will be passed in their entirety. My right hon. Friend has given an assurance that he will refer ​ the matter to the Boyle committee, but I hope that he will also give an assurance that he will accept the Boyle recommendations in their entirety.