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Camden New Journal - FORUM: Opinion in the CNJ
Published: 7 May 2009
Bernard Miller
Rich MPs have lost touch

In 1974 popular leader of Camden Council Millie Miller gave up 30 years of unpaid service as a councillor to work as a paid MP. Parliament then was a world away from what it is today, as her son Bernard Miller explains

SLEAZE! Corruption! Snouts in troughs! Sounds like the 1990s all over again.
If it weren’t so tragic it would be tempting to mix metaphors and describe rats rearranging deckchairs on the burning bridges of New Labour.
But alienated as I feel, I get no pleasure watching the remnants of the Labour Party I was once proud of enter full-scale meltdown.
I know I am not alone. Whatever they say, no major British party is now genuinely committed to policies (as opposed to slogans) to help the poor overcome the disadvantages poverty brings and reduce the obscene inequalities in our society.
Far from diminishing, as they were through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, disparities continue to grow. Rescuing profligate bankers at the expense of the poor, elderly, disabled and newly jobless doesn’t attack that.
Second and third homes, some rented out.
Mileage claims high enough to allow MPs to drive two-and-a-half times around the Earth!
Porn on the public purse! One of today’s most incendiary issues has turned out to be MPs’ pay, expenses and allowances.
If MPs’ claims really are made public in June, expect perks-related stories never to leave the headlines.
Media exposés of MPs’ excesses, carefully orchestrated to cause maximum embarrassment to Gordon Brown and his government – and they have a lot to be embarrassed about – have touched a chord with the public.
No major party will be spared.
It wasn’t like this when I worked for MPs in the 1970s. If she hadn’t been cremated, I could imagine my mother, Millie Miller, an “old Labour” MP and several of her genuinely honest colleagues, then proudly called “comrades”, spinning at high speed in their graves at what New Labour has become.
Millie was elected to Parliament in 1974 on the princely salary of £4,400 per year, approximately 25 per cent more than skilled Midlands motor workers.
A year later, with parliamentary salaries raised to £4,500, she joined Labour MPs who defeated their own government, voting not to increase their own salaries further.
Current stories of MPs’ entire families on the public payroll have triggered disgust. It’s confession time. We were one of those gravy train families.
I worked for three years as Millie’s research assistant, her sister worked for the last 18 months of Millie’s life as her secretary.
In 1975 MPs received a total annual secretarial allowance of £1,720 which included up to £550 for research. From her allowances (and partly from her salary) she paid a part-time secretary in Westminster, a part-time constituency secretary and a small amount to the local Labour Party agent for using his home for surgeries and processing constituents’ requests for help.
My aunt, paid by the hour, still has diaries showing her hours.
I was paid from £10 to £25 for each piece of research I did, (never the full £550) and was lucky enough to research occasionally for some other great MPs, including Jo Richardson, Robin Cook and Gwyneth Dunwoody. Holiday pay? Pension? Social Security contributions? No money for them!
In 1975 it cost about £2,500 per year to employ a secretary in central London and £1,720 didn’t go far but caring MPs made it work.
As an outer-London MP living in inner-London, Millie couldn’t have dreamt of a second home.
She could claim 11 pence per mile for car journeys between home and Parliament, home and constituency and Westminster and constituency.
By 1974 MPs no longer paid for national phone calls. They enjoyed free parliamentary postage and unlimited stationery (although I think they paid to have their name printed on it). They were entitled to free travel on parliamentary or constituency business on any national carrier.
Then we had a national railway network, British Rail, and a national airline, British Airways.
MPs got most public documents free and didn’t need their own gold-plated pension plan. Nobody did. Barbara Castle (who I worked for five years later) had introduced SERPS, a national plan for everyone in the country who hadn’t opted for an independent scheme. Thatcher, Blair and Brown scrapped that.
Margaret Thatcher unlocked the piggy bank, raised their pay and allowed MPs to start claiming expenses on a stellar scale. She argued it would raise the calibre of the parliamentary intake.
The reality looks very different. It has attracted some people whose primary interest seems to be financial self-interest.
However much they complain about pay and allowances, Labour MPs are now so well insulated from poverty many have lost touch with their most deprived constituents. Hardly surprising.
To win the 1997 general election Tony Blair promised continuity with Tory policies, especially on expenditure. That has extended to sleaze. Conscientious MPs suffer guilt by association.
Thatcher invented the career of high-earning “ex-Prime Minister”.
Following her example, while Gordon Brown now struggles on £777, Tony Blair rakes in £47,483 per day.
As non-MPs’ jobs, pay, benefits and pensions are cut, MPs talk of the need for 50 per cent pay increases.
Great leadership from a party that used to fight for and alongside the poor.

• Bernard Miller worked as his mother’s research assistant and after her death went on to work for other MPs, for MEPs and subsequently to work in various international organisations including the EU and the UN.

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