The claim

“Most sensible people will say when you compare it across Europe, the fact is that British parliamentarians have fallen behind.”
Mark Pritchard MP, 01 July 2013

The background

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is widely expected to recommend a hefty pay rise for MPs.

The body, set up in the wake of the expenses scandal, is on collision course with Prime Minister David Cameron, Commons Speaker John Bercow and other MPs who fear a public backlash.

But some politicians feel they are underpaid. Conservative backbencher Mark Pritchard has said he fears too much pay restraint will deter people from poorer backgrounds from standing for parliament.

Mr Pritchard suggests we look at the rest of Europe for a more honest assessment of how generous MPs’ salaries really are. Let’s do just that.

The analysis

We tried to find stats from every country in Europe, but we could only get reliable information from 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

International comparisons are tricky because every country has a different system of paying its MPs.

But we can make a start by looking at the basic wage a “backbencher” might expect to get – according to the websites of the various parliaments. This doesn’t include expenses, pension entitlements and so on.

In Britain the current basic MP’s salary is £66,396. That puts us in 11th place out of our 17 countries.

Italian politicians get the most at around £115,000 a year at current exchange rates. The Poles earn the least at just over £23,000. But that doesn’t mean a lot without taking into account the difference in earnings across Europe.

In order to compare like with like, we’ve used 2011 OECD stats for average annual full-time gross wages (there are a few surprises here already: Ireland, whose banks were bailed out by the EU and IMF in 2010, still enjoyed the highest wages in Europe the year after).

Comparing MPs’ basic wages with average earnings gives us a partial insight into how well politicians are paid compared to the average worker.

In Britain a backbench MP gets about 2.25 times the average full-time wage, only the 13th biggest ratio out of the 17 countries.

The biggest gap is in Italy, where an elected representative can expect to get more than £115,000, or more than 5 times the average wage of around £22,000. It’s a very similar ratio in Greece (a little over £88,000 a year for politicians with an average wage of just over £17,000).

Spain sees the smallest disparity between average earnings and politicians’ basic wages – MPs get just over 25 per cent more.

But many Spanish voters will tell you that basic salaries (around £29,000) are not the whole story. The country’s politicians are notorious for claiming generous living expenses and preferring limousines to public transport.

In fact in most countries, including the UK, working out the total financial benefits that come with public office is an extremely complex business.

These figures underestimate politicans’ true earnings in every country, though each system varies in its overall generosity.

In Italy and France in particular, generous unaudited expenses mean real average incomes can approach £165,000 and £145,000 respectively, according to research carried out for the Italian parliament.

In Britain you would have to add gold-plated pension benefits, expenses (a London-based MP could claim more than £200,000 this year) and other perks like “winding-up expenditure” – a £56,450 “golden goodbye” payable to an MP who decides to leave office.

The rights and wrongs of many of these payments are highly debatable. While most politicians would say that staff costs are a necessary expenses, some do all their own casework.

And suspicion lingers over the practice of MPs putting their family members on the payroll. Some 140 – more than a fifth – were still doing that in 2011/12.

Value for money?

Another big question is whether MPs justify their earnings – and it’s virtually impossible to check how much work British politicians do.

The Commons only sat for 145 days in 2012-13, although many MPs claim they are working hard in their constituencies when not at Westminster. But there is no official record of attendance at Westminster or of constituency work.

The website TheyWorkForYou records how often MPs speak in debates, put written questions to ministers and vote. These are important but not definitive measures of an MP’s activity in the Commons.

Tory MP Philip Hollobone – who was revealed as the MP who claimed the least expenses when the scandal broke in 2009 – has voted in 95 per cent of ballots in this parliament. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has managed just 13 per cent.

One way of looking at the size of a politician’s workload is to measure the number of people he or she represents, the suggestion sometimes being made that Britain has too many MPs per head of population compared to other countries.

Again, international comparisons are problematic, since some countries have one or two houses of parliament with varying responsibilities.

If we take the lower house in the various bicameral system as the equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons, it appears that Britain has the fourth highest ratio of voters to politicians of our 17 countries, with about 97,000 people for one MP.

Spain, Germany, France and the Netherlands have fewer politicians per head of population. Of Europe’s biggest economies, only Italy has more politicians per capita than the UK, if we count all 945 members of both houses of its parliament (they have virtually the same powers).

Most of the countries with fewer voters per politician have much smaller economies and populations. Estonia, with just over one million inhabitants and 101 members, has one politician for every 13,000 people.

The verdict

If Mr Pritchard means that other European countries tend to pay their politicians more, he could well be right in terms of basic salary.

Totting up all the other material benefits to get a really fair comparison is almost impossible, but it’s very unlikely that British MPs are on to a better thing with their expenses than their counterparts in Italy or France.

Having said that, the lack of effective transparency that dogs our system makes it very difficult to be sure.

There is no definitive way of checking how much work your MP is doing, while loopholes in the expenses system mean MPs can still employ close relatives at the public’s expense and claim rent from the taxpayer on a home in London while letting out a second property.

By Patrick Worrall