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13th Oct 2021

Nadia Whittome: Tory MP who said his £82K salary was ‘grim’ refuses to debate me

The knight of the realm thinks an MP's salary is inadequate but has voted to cut welfare 49 times, why wouldn't he want to defend that record on national television?

Nadia Whittome

Why won’t knight of the realm Sir Peter, who think his salary is inadequate and has voted to cut welfare 49 times, have it out with me on national TV?

Sir Peter Bottomley hit the headlines last week for complaining about MPs’ salaries. He said that for some of his colleagues, particularly young MPs, earning £81,932 a year was “really grim” and that he didn’t know “how they manage.”

I’m the UK’s youngest MP and I can categorically say that earning almost £82,000 is not grim in the least. In fact, I choose not to take my full salary and my life is still more comfortable than the majority of my friends, family members, and constituents. To most people of course, this won’t come as a surprise – because 95 per cent of workers earn less than £82,000 a year. 

It shouldn’t need the so-called “Baby of the House” (the name traditionally given to the youngest MP) to tell the “Father of the House” (Sir Peter is currently the UK’s longest-serving MP) how absurd and insulting his comments sound. But I have a lesson or two to share with him on what “grim” really is and why his comments speak to a rot at the heart of the Tory party.

That’s why I was keen to discuss wages and inequality with Sir Peter in a national TV interview. Unfortunately, he decided he no longer wanted to debate the issue. So, fingers-crossed Sir Peter is a PoliticsJOE stan instead.

At best, his comments show how out of touch his party is with most people’s lives. At worst they reveal a cruel double-standard, where Tory MPs believe that they and their friends should live comfortably while they vote for working class people to suffer.

His comments came at the same time as this government implemented the biggest overnight cut in social security since the founding of the modern welfare state. The Universal Credit uplift has ended while wages fail to keep up with the soaring cost of bills and food, and against a backdrop of a decade of austerity.

If £82,000 a year is “really grim”, how does he think people on Universal Credit manage? If you’re already on a low-income, what would losing £1,000 a year overnight do to your finances? 

From Dominic Raab saying a typical food bank user is “someone who has a cash flow problem episodically”, to Desmond Swayne, advising them to shop for food food “more cost effectively”, there is a long tradition of Conservative MPs showing contempt for people living in poverty. The number of people using food banks has increased every single year that their party has been in government since 2010. 

It is a privilege to be elected to represent your constituents in Parliament – the motivation should be public service, not taking home a big pay check. Teaching assistants, nurses, and firefighters also do an important public service. Where’s their pay rise? We shouldn’t be paid more while wages are stagnant and millions live in poverty. 

If Sir Peter wants to talk about pay, he should start with the fact that Tories have presided over a society where precarious low-paid work is the norm. Almost a million people are on zero-hours contracts. Hundreds of thousands of key workers, despite their importance in society, earn below the Real Living Wage – the pay the Living Wage Foundation charity calculates is necessary to meet basic needs. This includes care workers, cashiers and shop assistants whose average wage is under £9 an hour.

When I stood for Parliament, I pledged to take a workers’ wage. I’m here to represent workers, so I don’t want to be on a salary that massively separates me from my constituents and their standard of living. I choose to take home £35,000, which is still far more than many of my constituents get. 

The rest of my salary after tax goes to local causes. From trade unions fighting for gig economy workers, to a community centre offering food and benefits advice, to organisations supporting refugees and sex workers, I give this money in solidarity – not as charity – with those resisting austerity and standing up for, and with, marginalised people. 

I’m not saying that I expect Sir Peter or all other MPs to do the same, and even if they did this would not scratch the surface of deeply entrenched poverty and inequality. 

But when this government has eradicated child poverty; eliminated the need for food banks, raised the minimum wage; ensured everyone receives full Statutory Sick Pay at at least a real living wage; created a welfare system based on humanity and not punishment; scrapped the public sector pay freeze and strengthened workers rights – maybe then we then we could have a conversation about how MPs are faring financially.

Until that time, I suggest Sir Peter and his Tory colleagues have a long, hard look at what life is like for low-income families right now. I would hope they’d conclude that not only is 82K not so bad after all, but that the brutal austerity that they have inflicted must end. I won’t be holding my breath.