Robert Rhodes James – 1978 Speech on MP Salaries

Below is the text of the speech made by Robert Rhodes James, the then Conservative MP for Cambridge, in the House of Commons on 28 July 1978.

I agree with the closing words of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart), because we all feel a great sense of uneasiness at debating this matter at all. I have great sympathy with some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

It is a privilege and honour to be a Member of this House. We have come perhaps for many different reasons, but the honour and privilege of being here is something that we all feel, whatever our political views, very deeply. First, we have the conflict as to what is the job of a Member of Parliament anyway, and, secondly, we are all volunteers. So why should we find ourselves in the position of, in effect, voting money for ourselves or putting ourselves in the position of at least appearing to do so?

I am conscious, particularly as we are approaching a General Election in which many Members will not be standing again—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart), I regret to say—of the fact that while I am Member for Cambridge now I shall not be for ever. In course of time I shall have a successor, and I should like to hand to him the same traditions and at least some improvement on the conditions which obtain for Members at the moment.

The right hon. Member for Down, South came to this House in 1950. I first came in another capacity in 1955. When I returned as a Member after an absence of 12 years, I was astonished by the enormous increase in the burden of work falling on the average Back Bencher. Of course, constituencies vary very much, as do the burdens; there is also a variation of manner in which Members cope with their burdens. Mr. David Lloyd George made it a point of principle never to open, let alone read, letters from constituents. Every few months, he would dig out those letters and throw them away. His biographer said that this was one of the egocentricities with which his constituents learnt to live. Whether his attitude would be tolerated by a constituency today is another question.

Quite apart from the additional constituency work entailed in these modern days, the burden inflicted upon Members by Whitehall has increased. We have to consider whether we should not ask what is the nature of our job and whether we should continue to pretend that we are still in the Victorian era when a gentleman of leisure, having thought deeply about the great affairs of the day, came down to the House in the late afternoon or in the evening and made a great speech on the Spanish question, for example. I wonder whether we are not putting ourselves in the position of being little more than glorified councillors.

What should the position and role of a Member of Parliament be? I agree with those, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who have criticised Members in the past for their cowardice or failure to grasp the problem. Nevertheless, having said that, I have to feel some sympathy with our predecessors. When I was a Clerk in the House, at the age of 28 I was earning £500 a year more than Sir Winston Churchill or any other Member. I felt that situation very acutely. I feel it now as we come again to talk about these matters. We are talking about ourselves, and that is why I try to think of my successor, whoever he may be and whenever he may come in.

There are two points which I wish to emphasise. First, I am worried about a situation in which the allowances are so substantial and so important to Members. It worries me a great deal. Everyone is an “honourable Member” and so on, but when one is in a situation where allowances arc so vital, as I know they are to many Members who have no other source of income, the possibility of difficulty and of temptation clearly arises. I would like to see us come to a situation in which the salary is very much higher and we can look again at the whole question of allowances.

Although I agree with what hon. Members have said about comparisons with other countries and other legislatures, I think that there is something to be said for that part of the American system whereby the President and Congressmen and others are paid substantially and reasonably and given very good facilities, in return for which every candidate must ​ give a clear declaration of his interests, his income and his background.

I know that a lot of hon. Members do not like that idea, but I have no reluctance at all about it. It seems to me quite legitimate to ask, in return for a substantial increase in the parliamentary salary, that candidates should be clear and should inform their potential electors of their worth. The present Register of Interests is quite worthless. The word “barrister” or “consultant” can mean anything. It can mean a very small income or it can mean an enormous income. It can mean a part-time Member of Parliament or an absolutely full-time Member of Parliament.

If we are to move—I know that we shall not do it today, but I hope that we shall in the future—in the direction of a substantial and reasonable salary for Members of Parliament, we for our part must recognise that we have an obligation to be absolutely open with our electorate about our worth and our general financial position.