Wednesday 26 November 2014

The £64,000 Question

I wouldn't ask the audience if I were you....

You probably know full well I don't like these sorts of stories, but I have to cover it as there are serious implications.

As you're probably more than aware, the Independent Remuneration Board for the National Assembly has controversially recommended that Assembly Members' annual salary should rise by 18% (just under £10,000) to £64,000 from 2016. More from National Left, BBC Wales, Western Mail, South Wales Argus, Borthlas and Click on Wales....pretty much every major outlet in Wales has had its say, as well as the public.

The Board's recommendations (pdf) are out for consultation until January 12th, so I suggest if you feel strongly about it you make your feelings known.

The reasoning for the proposal is underpinned by a Bangor University report from July 2014 (pdf), the conclusions of which being very similar to those of the Hansard Society back in 2013 (Lifestyles of the dull and half famous), citing numerous grumbles of AMs, such as a poor work-life balance (in particular childcare), problems with media scrutiny and public perceptions of the Assembly (this helps!), and higher levels of legislative work since the 2011 referendum.

Add to this long-standing complaints about the calibre of Assembly candidates and sitting members, and it feeds into the proposal for a pay increase to properly reflect the stature and changing nature of the job.

The Board itself is made up of some eminent people, while politics isn't everyone's favourite profession even at the best of times. So it's unlikely any recommendations – except a pay cut or pay freeze (AMs have been on a voluntary pay freeze this term) – would've generated good press anyway.

I realise this has been timed so the proposals can be sorted out well in advance of the Fifth Assembly, but to propose this now, during austerity, is inflammatory and borders on idiotic, proving once and for all that even some of the cleverest people lack common sense.

Starting with the proposals in detail, it's worth looking at the raw pay levels themselves. I'd say current salaries (~£54,000 per year) "feel" about right.

An AM earns just over twice the median Welsh salary and still – even before this proposal – will be amongst the top 5% of earners, ranking ahead of senior hospital registrars, for example.

It is a very fast-paced job, and can be stressful with long hours. So - together with expenses, pensions and relocation allowances etc – it's a fair deal for them and the public. The pay structure didn't need fixing; that's the first big mistake made here.

We've had those who've been refreshingly honest – like Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales), who deserves credit for explaining why a pay rise might be appropriate, citing her experiences as a single parent and the difficulties that causes someone in politics.

But surely childcare issues should be dealt with via the expenses system? There's no need for all AMs get a pay bump when not all of them will have dependent children.

As for the rest of them, we're now going to get a hair shirt parade where individual AMs or whole parties will try and out-do each other in denouncing this affront to public sensibilities. It's patronising and insincere, as it's not as if AMs are living like Zen monks at the moment. If it were any other job, they would be jumping around the living room and eyeing up a new car or expensive holiday (subject to re-election).

Next there's the changing nature of the job itself. The workload has noticeably increased since the 2011 referendum, but I'm not convinced it's dramatic enough to justify a pay hike of this magnitude. Bills are much trickier to work with and require finer scrutiny than Measures and LCOs but the process is still very similar to the Third Assembly.

My worry is AMs (and the wider Welsh political class) have a massive inferiority complex with regard MPs (perhaps MSPs too), and are desperate – perhaps too desperate – to be taken more seriously on the wider UK stage at the expense of their current devolved roles. They think that to do that they have to emulate Westminster in every way, including pay.

Also, believing paying politicians more will attract higher quality candidates is bizarre logic. It's the "peanuts and monkeys" argument that's been demolished by the goings on in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. The last thing we need is more lawyers, ex-civil servants, teachers and accountants in the Assembly, attracted by similar salaries. That's what we have at present.

If we're going to sit down and say that in order to attract the best candidates to the National Assembly you have to dangle a golden carrot in front of them, we might as well pack up now.

It works in some professions, but most professions are looking for specific skills and can match individuals to those roles. The quality of AMs is ultimately down to political parties, and they can't improve the calibre of AMs by chucking money at the problem.

Party members choose candidates, and they make bad choices. That's the elephant in the room, recently touched on by the IWA – political parties in Wales are dying, increasingly leaving them with ideologues (out of touch with reality), careerists (carpetbaggers) and stalwarts (a bit thick, sees the party as a social club and does what they're told).

Imagine your typical constituency branch lining up two candidates for a seat. One is a "party stalwart", the other is parachuted in from academia or the private sector and was begged to stand by party HQ on the promise of a similar salary. Guess who the several dozen aging party members and mates of the stalwart are going to choose?

That's how it works. All this proposal means is we end up with the same quality of candidates being paid more (if elected) for the same standard of work.

This is a very nasty early Christmas present for AMs - a Yule log made of poo - and one of those occasions where they're damned if they do, damned if they don't (though, it's worth reiterating, they have to accept the proposals and get elected/re-elected first). And even though they've had nothing to do with this, it's likely to become an election issue in 2016.

If they accept the recommendations, then they get a massive pay rise and wouldn't be able to look the public in the face the next time they talk about cuts.

Even if they did the whole good PR thing of giving the difference between what they currently earn and the new salary to charity, the damage would be done and might be irreparable. The Fifth Assembly will start under a very dark cloud.

Meanwhile, if they reject the recommendations, then you have to wonder what's the point of establishing an independent panel to decide these things - and going through all this effort - if AMs are set on rejecting its recommendations from the start?

It renders the independent assessment of pay and expenses – which was hailed as a positive difference between Cardiff Bay and Westminster since the expenses scandal – a complete sham. You might as well hand control over pay and expenses to the public, and if that happened, I hope AMs have a warm sleeping bag and enjoy Pot Noodles.

Objectively, they should just take the money and do whatever spiritual cleansing they need to do come 2016. Subjectively, they should have their pay cut in real terms or frozen.

There are people in the Assembly who are worth a pay rise - not the AMs, and not senior officials either. You have to go into the bowels of the Assembly to find them, and I'm willing to bet most of the public don't even know they exist.

I'm talking, of course, about AM support staff (AMSS), who often do the grunt work (for little credit) and are seriously undervalued and poorly paid considering the work they've been lumbered with since the 2011 referendum (which is often criminally overlooked in this discussion).

None of you believe AMs write speeches, deal with the minutiae of casework, do research and draft press releases themselves, do you? There's a whole army of "little people" to do that, who don't have expenses, get paid (at most) two-fifths what AMs do yet still have to deal with the public and anything else demanded of them....

....and I'm not just saying that because I know this blog is significantly more popular with AMSS than Assembly Members, but because this blog means I have a partial idea what their job is like and therefore more sympathy for them.

What AMSS should do if these recommendations are approved is strike for better pay, because if you're one of those people who think the standard of work from AMs is bad now, I shudder to think what you'll make of it without their support staff.

Then we might have a discussion about who really deserves a pay rise.


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