Thursday, 13 March 2008

What percentage is the brain?

With the decision on the pay rise for our AMs now apparently done and dusted, I’m not sure that I'd award any of the parties any prizes for their behaviour; the best that I can come up with is an honourable mention for (most of) Plaid.

Firstly, the Tories. There was something distinctly unedifying about the man who is probably the wealthiest member of the Assembly (and despite almost nine years as a member, one of the least well-known) leading the charge. Speaking on behalf of a party which has opposed and obstructed the transfer of powers to Wales at every stage, here he was demanding that the 'extra powers' which most of his party have fought so hard to prevent should now be reflected in extra pay for himself and his colleagues.

Secondly the Lib Dems. If they had anything meaningful or original to say, other than ‘give us the money’, then I’m afraid that I must have blinked at the time. They have been no more relevant or visible on this issue than on any other.

Labour have mostly managed to avoid saying anything very much, which was probably a wise move. Letting Alun Davies loose on the matter was a good deal less wise. Rather than attempting any serious attempt at justification of the decision, he resorted to attacking Plaid members for being unable to face up to the ‘difficult decisions’ of being in government. Really? Serious business, this governing, obviously. Having to take major decisions like increasing your own pay – it’s really tough on them isn’t it? How to lose an argument in one easy lesson.

Lastly Plaid. An honourable mention for a degree of consistency. In a previous post, I referred to refusing the rise as ‘gesture politics’, but they seem to have ultimately had little real choice. I haven’t really changed my mind, but from their perspective, having presented evidence to the review body arguing that no rise was necessary, and then having voted against the rise, quietly accepting it would have looked like sheer hypocrisy. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. So why only an honourable mention?

Three main reasons.

Firstly, because it ended up looking as though some of them were at best reluctant participants in declining the rise, and two seem still to have opted out. In addition, taking the money and giving it to charity sounds well-meaning, but in practice, unless done carefully, it means that 50% of the money gets paid straight back to Mr Darling in tax and NI. It also leaves an easy option for quietly taking the money in a year or two's time.

Secondly, because their opposition seems to have been as much about timing as about the principle. One is left believing that many of them would be quite happy to take the money if only the timing had only been a little better.

All of the parties seem to be obsessed with the idea that their pay should in some way be related to that of MPs, and this whole debacle has been about whether an AM is worth 76.5% of an MP, or 82%. Bandying numbers like that around makes it sound as though there is some clever science and arithmetic behind the equation; but it’s ultimately an entirely subjective judgement.

Yes, but that 5.5% is very important, they seem to be saying. They’re doing more, and MPs are doing less, so the differential should be less. (The obvious question is the one which so many have asked, which is why, if MPs are doing less, the rise for AMs is not compensated by a cut for MPs – I haven’t heard a sensible answer to that question yet.)

But there are also 1.5 AM’s for every MP – 60 compared to 40; and if Richard’s recommendations had been taken up and implemented (which I think they should have been, by the way), the ratio would have been 2:1. Where does that factor into the 82% equation? If there were more AMs to do all this extra work, would that mean a salary cut?

We need to get away from an essentially irrelevant comparison with members of another legislature; stop looking over our shoulders at what’s happening elsewhere, and decide what’s right in a Welsh context for Welsh legislators. Their status and esteem depends not on being a few percent closer to being a ‘proper legislator’ in London, but on what they do and are seen to do here in Wales.

And that brings me to the third reason why I give Plaid no more than an honourable mention. If there is one party which should be prepared to forget comparisons with London, and have the confidence to look only at what is right for Wales, it should be Plaid.

And another thing…

I understand how the Western Mail can refer to the need to attract people of higher calibre to become AMs, but when AMs themselves start to use the argument...

If an AM says “We need to attract people of a higher calibre” isn’t (s)he effectively saying, “I know we’re not up to the job, but we’re the best you can get for this sort of money”? And if that is so, then there is a fairly obvious corollary - if an increase is needed at all, it can safely be deferred until the next Assembly elections, because that’s when better people need to be attracted to stand, not before.

The converse is that we would be paying more to the members who make such statements - and paying more to people who have admitted that they are not up to the job doesn't seem to me to be sending them quite the right message.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is Billy Graham the richest AM in the village? The only other ones who were there nine years ago are Bourne, Cairns and Melding

Anonymous said...

It was probably Glyn Davies up to the last election but hes gone back to his farm in Montgomeryshire to make more money since losing his seat.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Isn't Alun Davies the richest AM now?

Ian said...

Why hasn't anyone wondered why the Labour activists attacking Plaid for being cynical, have not criticised their own party for cutting public sector pay in the first place?

Why is much of this argument ignoring the very issue that many Plaid AMs have tried to highlight through their actions?

Ceredig said...

The register of Members' interests is a publicly available document on the Assembly's website, and even though it allows members to word things in ways which don't reveal the extent of their wealth, I think it's pretty clear who is likely to be the wealthiest. I don't think either of the Davieses named comes close.

Ian,

The treatment of public sector workers by Labour is indeed shameful. There can be no excuse for behaving as though public sector pay is the root of all inflation problems, when it clearly is not. Nor should public sector workers bear the brunt of any action needed to deal with inflation.

But you do really seem to be saying that if public sector pay had been allowed to go up by 3%, or if the conclusions of the pay review bodies had been implemented in full, then it would be perfectly OK for the AMs to regrade themselves and take the money. Doesn't that come close to conceding the point which Labour critics have been making?

My argument has been that the reasons given for the regrading are invalid, that the salary paid to AMs is perfectly adequate, and that a rise in line with average rises in public sector pay, this year and in any other year, is adequate recompense.

After all, this is a job for which there are NO set requirements in terms of qualifications, specific skills, or previous experience. There's no annual performance measurement, no distinction made between the best and the worst performers, and even the laziest and most useless still gets the full salary. Not many well-paid jobs like that around.

Southpaw Grammar said...

"My argument has been that the reasons given for the regrading are invalid, that the salary paid to AMs is perfectly adequate, and that a rise in line with average rises in public sector pay, this year and in any other year, is adequate recompense."

I made a very similar point on my own blog, very true.

I think you have pretty much summed up the issue well.

Anonymous said...

for another view on Welsh issues check out:
http://stishmael.blogspot.com/

Ian said...

In order to judege whether or not the re-grading was deserved, you would have to sit down and make a judgement on the clear increase in roles and responsibilities. It has nothing whatsoever to do with volume of work, as some on other blog sites have suggested.

This is a process that I frequently have to carry out on behalf of members in my union and no two cases are the same. They have to base the salary grading on some criteria/datum point and it is not unreasonable to look at what other Assemblies/Parliaments are doing in the UK.

I admit that I have assumed that this process has been carried out professionally and objectively, which may be a big assumption to make. Perhaps they should suggest that experienced case officers from trade unions look at the calculations and give their opinions.

I accept that the decision that 13 Plaid AMs have taken is a controversial one, but I do not believe that it was contrived or planned in any way. I think it was a gut reaction to the unfairness of receiving such a significant rise, when so many (particularly the lower paid) public sector workers are finding it extremely hard to make ends meet.

If the Plaid AMs who have declined the full rise were publicly bragging about their actions or criticising others for taking the 8.3%, then your accusations of gesture politics would ring true. However, they have not done so.

I still belive that the main culprit here is Gordon Brown for cutting their pay in the first place; his actions being effectively a de-recognition of roles and responsibilities.

Ceredig said...

Ian,

For the full report, see http://www.assemblywales.org/firstreport-salaries.pdf. (Sorry, don't know how to turn that into a link). I don't think that you could read that and still believe that this was a "professional and objective" process.

"you would have to sit down and make a judgement on the clear increase in roles and responsibilities"

Hard to disagree with you on that. But the panel actually said (para 3.13), "it was not possible for us to undertake a comprehensive role evaluation of an Assembly Member's new duties".

You say that the increase has nothing to do with 'volume of work'. Wrong. See para 3.7, 3.11, and Appendix E. Volume of work clearly formed part (although not the whole) of the deliberations.

Their final judgment seems to have been based on "a point about halfway between the existing percentage and that of a Scottish member" (para 3.15). I think you Trades Union negotiators call that 'splitting the difference'; it is ultimately nothing more than a subjective assessment on the part of the panel.

You say that there is nothing wrong with coparisons with other parliaments in the UK. The review panel itself seems to disagree with you (para 4.4), saying that "comparisons with MPs may be less useful than reference to pay structures relating to those working in other parts of the public service". On this, to some extent, I agree with the panel, although I certainly wouldn't limit it to the judiciary and the civil service!. But a link to a multiple of average public sector pay in Wales, taking the issue out of the hands of elected members completely, would be one that I could and would be happy to support.

A couple of extra points worth noting - the panel itself drew attention to the need for greater independence - para 4.4 hints that having the Assembly's civil servants providing the secretarial and administrative support to it made it less independent than it should have been.

Secondly, as far as I can see, the 'independent' body actually recommmended against the increases which are being paid to the party whips.

I think that the answer to the change in workload could and should have been an increase in the membership to 80, as recommended by Richard. I suspect that you would agreee. There is a serious danger that that has become even less likely in the foreseeable future as a result of this unnecessary re-adjustment of salaries.