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Politicians condemn pay rise plans
Senior politicians condemned a "wholly inappropriate" plan to increase MPs' pay by 11% as they sought to avoid a damaging backlash from hard-pressed voters.
The independent body given responsibility for Westminster pay and perks in the wake of the expenses scandal is pressing ahead with plans to boost salaries by £7,600 to £74,000 after the 2015 general election.
That is significantly lower than the £86,250 average figure MPs told the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) they deserved in a anonymous survey earlier this year. A fifth of those questioned said they should get £95,000 or more.
But while a handful publicly defended the increase, prominent frontbenchers from all three main parties said the move was unacceptable when most public sector workers were getting no more than 1% extra a year.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said the public would find it "utterly incomprehensible" if Ipsa defied concerted calls from David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to show restraint.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond indicated that he would not accept the extra cash while armed forces' pay was being pegged back - and suggested cabinet ministers would agree a united approach.
But Labour ex-cabinet minister Jack Straw defended the move - to be confirmed on Thursday - arguing that the failure of MPs' pay to keep pace with comparable public sector jobs was deterring talented people of "modest backgrounds" from standing.
And Tory MP David Ruffley said he was "minded" to accept the rise so long as it was balanced by action to curb other costs to the taxpayer - such as a promised end to generous resettlement grants for departing MPs.
In an effort to mitigate the rise, Ipsa is believed to have also drawn up a tougher-than-expected squeeze on pension schemes, forcing MPs to pay in more and the taxpayer less, on top of a crackdown on claims for dinner, taxis and tea and biscuits.
MPs were stripped of the power to set their own pay in the wake of the revelations of widespread abuses of taxpayer expenses, leaving them little or no room to block Ipsa's proposals short of changing its role by law.
Ipsa's research found that two thirds of MPs believe they are underpaid and the watchdog's chairman Sir Ian Kennedy has insisted politicians' pay must "catch up" after years of being suppressed.
The hefty rise is certain to play badly with voters at the general election however, with many candidates - especially those in marginal seats - feeling under pressure to say they will divert the cash from their pay packets to good causes.
Mr Alexander told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "Most people will find it utterly incomprehensible that at a time of pay restraint for the public sector, at a time of further squeezes on Government spending, that Ipsa should be recommending (that), if that's what they do.
"I think it would be wholly inappropriate for MPs to get such a large pay rise at a time when every other public sector worker sees their pay rises capped at 1%," he said - adding that he would give up the extra income.
"Even at this late stage, Ipsa should recognise the wider climate not just of public opinion but, more importantly, the wider economic climate and the wider climate of people's living standards,"
Mr Hammond accepted there were " good arguments" in favour of a substantial increase "but this is not the moment".
"So long as I'm the Defence Secretary presiding over a situation where the troops that serve our country so brilliantly are facing a 1% pay rise, I won't be taking a pay increase," he told Pienaar's Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live.
"The Government would say that although Ipsa is an independent body and must be allowed to be independent, it also must have regard to the broader mood of public opinion and the Government's public sector pay restraint policy.
Asked whether he would give the money to charity, he said: "I suspect there will be a strong mood in the Cabinet that we all need to say the same thing."
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said Ipsa appeared to have come to its conclusions "entirely out of any context of the real world.
He told Murnaghan on Sky News: "I think it is preposterous we should be having this discussion and as a shadow chancellor, h ow could I possibly say to Labour MPs at this time, with the economy like this, with the economy under real pressure, there's a cost of living crisis, that they should take a pay rise?"
Mr Straw, one of the few to break ranks, said that while it was a very hard time to persuade people of the need to raise pay, voters could be persuaded by a "sober" argument that remuneration had fallen behind that of most headteachers and middle-ranking senior local council officers.
Without addressing that gap, he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "Y ou will go on recruiting people of some talent who have family money or who have got many fewer family responsibilities but you won't get, importantly, recruitment from people of modest backgrounds."
Conservative Sir Peter Bottomley said: "The only way MPs could overturn this is to defy their leaders and pass a law saying Ipsa is abolished or it will be ignored. That's impractical given the public interest in setting up Ipsa in the first place."
Mr Ruffley conceded the timing was "appalling" but added: "I am minded to accept it but I want to see ... that we show the public we are also taking a hit."
Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "That an 11% pay rise is even being proposed, when living standards for everyone else are falling and poverty is rife, shows a political class wildly out of touch.
"Any MP that thinks this increase would be anything other than a complete scandal should seriously consider their position."
Former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd said political leaders should accept Ipsa's recommendation, "as unpalatable as it may be".
She told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour: "I know that (the pay rise) is distasteful to a lot of people, but at the same time they have cut down the expenses and various other things.
"And if you give it to an independent tribunal then that has to be accepted.
"Parliament is between a rock and a hard place unfortunately on this.
"The taxpaying public aren't going to like it, but I think they're just going to have to take it on the chin."