News analysis: Was IPSA always on to a loser with the MPs' pay story?

Howls of outrage greeted the recommendations on MPs' pay and pensions published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority this week. Were they inevitable?

Parliament and Portcullis House (picture credit Ian Bottle)
Parliament and Portcullis House (picture credit Ian Bottle)

Within minutes of publication, the media leapt into action to report IPSA was recommending an 11 per cent salary increase for "greedy" politicians.

Many MPs went into paroxysms of self-loathing and the three party leaders declared themselves firmly against the recommendations.

What may well not have got through to the man in the street is that the proposals represent no additional spending on MPs' remuneration whatsoever.

Their pensions would be reduced, putting them on the same footing as the rest of the public sector and there would be tighter control of costs, expenses and resettlement payments worth tens of thousands per MP.

In return, MPs salaries would rise by a total of 11 per cent by 2015 to £74,000.

The press release put out by IPSA to announce the proposals led with the news that it was recommending a serious hike in MPs wages.

But Metro political editor John Higginson wonders why IPSA didn’t present the story as a pay cut in real terms.

"MPs wages have been frozen for years. If they had kept up with average wages, they would have been earning £89,000 in 2015, not the £74,000 IPSA is suggesting," he says.

The view from within IPSA seems to be that it feels it is on a hiding to nothing with the story, going back to the consultation on its proposals it ran in the summer.

An IPSA spokesman said the press release was deliberately framed to put the "bad news" up front.

"Yes, we could have had a release stressing that this was a package that we were cutting pension payments and other benefits and then perhaps in paragraph four we could have introduced the idea of a salary increase. But we’ve done that in the past and we’ve been accused of burying bad news to please our political masters."

Aside from the release, could it have managed the story better?

Higginson claims the wage hike was not a last-minute surprise. "We had been getting word that the report included a massive wage hike for some weeks before, so we were all well-primed for the story."

However, it seems that IPSA was not leaking details to the media ahead of publication. "They were saving it for the day," says Higginson.

The IPSA spokesman says the intention was to play straight rather than try to spin, although there were some "scene-setting" discussions with senior journalists.

The organisation’s frustration over the reaction to its proposals was made abundantly clear by its chairman Sir Ian Kennedy earlier this week.

"We were asked to fix the problem [of MPs remuneration] for a generation, not for a news cycle," he wrote in The Times.

As things stand it looks like IPSA’s comms operation needs to spend much more time pressing home the arguments.

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