John Stokes – 1978 Speech on MP Salaries

Below is the text of the speech made by John Stokes, the then Conservative MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge, in the House of Commons on 28 July 1978.

In some ways it is a pity that this debate has been so wide ranging and dominated by the bizarre and perhaps brilliant exposition of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) which I felt was more suitable to an eighteenth century Parliament than to our Parliament. I often wish that we did live in those great and glorious days but, alas, we do not. I agree that when Members of Parliament were not paid we were probably better governed than we are now, but we have to address ourselves to the realities of the present situation.

I was sorry that the right hon. Member for Down, South seemed to imply ​ that he was a slightly more honourable Member than others. I am sure that he did not mean to imply that, but it might be read into some parts of his rather puritanical and hair-shirted speech. The right hon. Member was very personal about himself. I do not intend to be. I will say that although it had been my ambition to come to this House for as long as I can remember, I waited until I had started a business and made a success of it and had some money behind me, apart from what I might earn here. When I came here I never thought for a moment of what I would earn or how well off or otherwise I would be.

That is not the case for everybody. Many hon. Members entered this House years before I did. Many depend entirely and exclusively upon their salaries. It is those hon. Members about whom we should be mainly concerned. Those of us who have the advantage of another income must be particularly careful to give that point due regard. It is always a difficult thing for us to consider our own salaries. There are two difficulties to overcome. I speak as someone who has been dealing with salaries and other matters for most of my adult life since the war.

The first point to make is that we are practically the only people in this country who fix our own remuneration. Secondly, that already difficult situation is exacerbated by the Government’s pay policies, which have introduced anomalies, delays and frustrations. The occupation of Members of Parliament, strictly speaking, cannot be compared with any other job.

I deal first with Ministers’ salaries. We have heard a lot about Members’ salaries but little about the salaries of Ministers. I believe that they are still scandalously low, by any comparison. That must have a bearing on Members’ salaries. I cannot see why the Prime Minister should not be paid a salary of around £50,000 a year. That is much lower than the salaries of some of the chairmen of our great companies. The salaries of other Ministers could then rise in proportion.

There is a new factor affecting the salaries of Ministers and hon. Members—the vast improvement in the salaries, pensions and conditions of service of the Civil Service. There has been created a ​ specially favoured class, insulated from the financial problems faced by almost all other people. While I would not for a moment claim that we should enjoy such exceptionally favourable terms, I do say that it is wrong that there should be such a colossal disparity between the Civil Service and ourselves. This disparity is shown up in the non-contributory pensions and in the pay and other conditions of service enjoyed in the Civil Service.

I speak as a Member who, since leaving the Army, has spent most of his life as an industrial manager. I believe that we must attract into the House more people from industry, commerce and the City. The able young men, possibly in their early thirties, who are making their careers outside, must be offered some sort of salary which will not involve too great a financial sacrifice, particularly if they are married, with families. We can never make up our minds what sort of people we are here. Listening to the right hon. Member for Down, South, I felt that he seemed to think that we were still members of the old aristocracy or landed gentry, or possibly the richer burgesses from the towns. Those days are over. This place should represent all classes in society. We still have—I hope that we always shall have—the upper House to correct any excesses of democracy here. I strongly believe that the upper House should be based on hereditary peers. If we are to say that, surely we must have a truly democratic assembly here.

Pay policy has utterly confounded salaries in this place, as it has in every other department of our national life. I do not believe in incomes policies. They are holding back the country’s industrial, commercial and professional life. As long as the Government insist on a rigid pay policy we are placed in an awkward situation. If this House later decides that all of those in the country—those who work and those who do not, those with responsibilities and those without them, those who are highly skilled and those who are not—should be limited in their new contracts of employment to an increase not exceeding 5 per cent. it will make us look very selfish and foolish if we talk about paying ourselves thousands of pounds a year more.

That is not to say that we should not do so. It shows how absurd and ridiculous is the 5 per cent. limit. There has been much talk of attaching our salaries to an outside source. This has its attractions. However, I believe that we should have the courage to say that we are comparable with no one, and that we have, in our own wisdom, the right to fix our own levels of pay. The time is soon coming when we must make a supreme effort to deal with this matter once and for all. I feel most embarrassed when I see older Members here hanging on, dreading retirement, because of the continued delay about fixing proper rates of salary and pension.

It is also extremely confusing and muddling to have one rate of salary here and to have another notional salary for pension purposes. The only way to deal properly with pensions is to have a proper rate of salary here.

We have very serious issues before us. People say that the public are extremely disagreeable about our salaries, but I believe that to be largely unfounded. In all the correspondence that I have received in the eight and a quarter years that I have been here, I have not received a single letter either about my salary or about the salaries of other Members. Therefore, I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House, let us be bold, decide what is right, and make absolutely sure that the new figure applies the moment the new Parliament meets.