Charles Morrison – 1978 Speech on MP Salaries

Below is the text of the speech made by Charles Morrison, the then Conservative MP for Devizes, in the House of Commons on 28 July 1978.

I feel that the sands of time have run out even before I start, so I shall endeavour to be brief. I agreed strongly with the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) when he said that hon. Members should be able to live adequately. I might add “by roughly equivalent standards”, but I emphasise “roughly” because I also agree with him that we are unique and I do not think that our salary scale should be attached to any other scale. That must mean a review by the Boyle committee or its equivalent not just once in a while, at the behest of the Government, but at regular intervals. This is an objective towards which we should be working.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) laid so much emphasis on the extent to which, even now, certain people—an increasing number in future—will be precluded from becoming Members because they will not be able to maintain the standard of living that they could obtain outside.

However highly motivated the potential parliamentarian aged 28 or 30 may be, since it is not unusual for young people of that age to have been married only recently, he may well have to consider carefully his responsibility towards his wife and family. In addition, when wives consider the alternatives of the parliamentary salary or their husbands continuing in their present careers and gradually climbing the ladder, most will tell their husbands that in no circumstances should they go into the House of Commons. That is an important aspect for us to take into account.

There was a germ of truth in some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but his main argument was old-fashioned stuff, which had nothing to do with the world in which we have to live. He said that we should make our decision on behalf of subsequent Parliaments and not for ourselves. I disagree; I believe that we should make the decision, implement it, and go to the country carrying that responsibility on our own shoulders, rather than half-pretending that only others will benefit from our decision. I would prefer to come clean with the electors to putting up a smoke-screen and pretending that something that is to happen will not happen.

I agree strongly with those who said that it is never the right time to review parliamentary salaries. For almost as long as I can remember, there have been the additional problems involved with incomes policies, but the real and relative values of parliamentary salaries have been steadily eroded. If it pleases the right hon. Member for Down, South, I add the words “while I have been an hon. Member.”

The fact that salaries are too low is entirely the fault of ourselves, particularly the Back Benchers. Our salaries are not imposed on us by the Treasury; they are imposed on us because we have not been prepared to take a strong line ourselves. In the past, there has been a lot of lobbying by us all, particularly Back Benchers, about salary increases, but when the Government of the day decide to make increases or to implement someone else’s recommendations, we Back Benchers have too often run scared. We have run for cover and let the Government carry ​ the can. In consequence, we have got what we deserve—or, perhaps, what we do not deserve.

Looking to the future, it is important that, to a much greater extent, we should personalise the responsibility on each of us for justifying the salaries that we receive. This is a subsidiary objective in the development of the joint approach between both main parties for which the greatest credit must be given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes).

The Minister referred to future pay increases and said that there were grave difficulties in giving a blind commitment in advance. I understand that. It is not surprising that there should be that reaction from the Government Front Bench, in isolation. It is not impossible for the commitment, which has been requested by other hon. Members, to be made by both Front Benches and, if need be, by the minor parties. If such a commitment is not made there will be continuing and growing dissatisfaction because of the uncertainty that will arise.

Unless some such commitment is entered into there will be an unseemly row, such as there has been in other countries, for example, Australia. The outcome of that sort of row will be that the Back Benches will be in control and will impose their will on the Government of the day and, perhaps, the Opposition Front Bench. The Government have to remember that they are the servants of Parliament, not vice versa.