Tuesday, 16 June 2015

One law for the masses another for the governing elite...

In the last month, two pay review bodies have announced inflation busting and unrealistic proposed increases to the salaries of our politicians in what are supposedly ‘austerity times’.

Do you remember the Cameron/Tory line over the past 5 years, which stressed that ‘we were all in this together,’ when tackling the country’s historical financial, banking and economic difficulties.  Even Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg repeated the same slogan—but at least emphasised that within the context of millionaire tax cuts and welfare cuts, the situation was anything but ‘all in it together’—which is true. So okay, the establishment people, academics and consultants that comprised the Independent Remuneration review bodies must have been aware of the grand picture and should therefore have arrived at proposals with fairness and equal treatment in mind.

But Surprise! Surprise! How wrong can one be? ‘In it together’ went out the window and Bonanza time arrived for our ‘betters’!  Difficult times? Well, they gave a cursory nod to that and quickly concluded that the general public didn’t appreciate nor understood matters. Of course, we should all realise how hard working and underpaid our politicians and leaders really are …

Hence the end result was an 18% pay increase for Senedd Members and 11% for Westminster MPs. Other public service workers, such as nurses and teachers, will just have to make do with a 1% rise until 2017/18. Now, they must have thought in some logical way but believed that our rulers should not suffer.

As ever, the attitude presented is that we won’t do ‘as we preach,’ but we’ll just ‘do as we want’. My experience over decades of establishment people and their acolytes has been always thus—and they subsequently spend an enormous amount of time and money on fact finding working groups etc in an attempt to find out the exact reasons why people are so disillusioned with them and politics.

So let me examine the proposals in greater depth. Setting aside the fairness argument for a moment—are these increases in any way justifiable or defensible?

The Remuneration Board and others argue that, in essence, Wales needs good governance with a strong and effective Assembly. Quite right—I have been saying that since 2002! Also, they argue that Wales urgently needs exceptional AMs who are motivated and are of a high ability. Again, I agree—been saying that also for at least 10 years.  But then they fall into the trap of suggesting that the only solution in 2016 is to give AMs a significant pay increase which, in reality, will mainly benefit the existing pool of AMs—the very ones, by definition, they are critical of and so dissatisfied with their performance.

On top of this, the Independent Remuneration Board claims that from 2016 our AMs will be doing a totally different job—due to them having more powers over borrowing and tax setting as well as the authority to determine the Senedd’s SIZE, ELECTIONS and NAME. The first point is a complete fallacy. The Senedd, even with increased powers, will still not be as strong as the Scottish Parliament encompassed in the Bill going through Parliament currently—let alone the additional greater powers now demanded by the SNP over national insurance, corporation tax, trade union law and welfare employment law. For comparison, the current Scottish Bill does propose granting powers over aspects of welfare services amounting to £2.5 Billion and rules over a range of benefits relating to carers, disabled people and the elderly. I listened to Carwyn Jones clearly state at a recent constitutional conference in London that, as things stand, he does not wish to have such powers for Wales, and I don’t blame him either.

So, are these much heralded ‘new and additional powers’ going to be implemented for 2016?

Answer, No! Because as matters stand, quite rightly after the general election, with the rapidly changing Scottish scene, the anticipated Wales Bill is being re-examined by the Government. Then there is the Labour administration’s prevarication over when or even whether to hold a referendum on new tax and borrowing powers before they take effect. So assuming that the support of the Welsh people is forthcoming (and it is by no means a foregone conclusion following the extent of dissatisfaction with the Assembly’s performance to date), these additional new powers, in whatever form they eventually take, will not be realised until 2017/18 at the earliest. In other words, there is a lot of uncertainty in the air which does not create a sound and justifiable context within which to propose such a massive 18% salary rise.

The other justification put forward is a complete farce! For a while I thought it was even an April fool’s joke! AMs deserve an 18% pay rise because they will have the authority to decide the Assembly’s NAME, the number of AMs, and the system of elections. Is this Board of the great and the good serious? Of course, as expected in true Welsh style, some people even envisage a Senedd of a 100 members! Are we real?  The population of Scotland is 5.35 Million  (Wales 3.1M), the land area of Scotland is 32% that of UK – more than three times that of Wales and it has 59 constituencies to Wales’s 40. But wait for it; we have 1,264 local government councillors to Scotland’s 1,223. Senedd of a 100? I don’t think so—we already have too many bureaucrats and politicians!

Oh, I forgot, the Board also argues that none of us appreciate that the AMs’ pension scheme has changed, resulting in AMs now having to make greater contributions themselves toward their pension. Hello! Firstly, the pension arrangements remain generous compared to many services, and other public servants too have had to make increased contributions to their scheme—but in the context of a 5 year pay freeze and 1% pay rise. On the pay freeze point, the First Minister recently reminded me that his salary had been frozen since 2009 to which I replied, yes I know, but compare your salary with the average in Wales … there was no response …

Finally, the argument goes ‘pay more and we’ll get better calibre candidates’.  Really? Have they ever looked at the history of how Labour, in particular, and the other parties choose candidates during the past 50 years or so? The key requirements are loyalty to party, whether a person is left/right in their policy views, or are a trade union member/local government councillor. These factors matter far more than whether the person is the best available to serve the people or whether he or she has significant professional experience to draw on outside politics and have achieved success in the wider world. What more, for every successful AM candidate, there are several others from the same party per constituency seeking nomination—salary has never been a barrier for good people to stand for election, the obstacles are party political.

Moving on, let us have a look at how hard the AMs work? The last set of statistics I saw stated that they work a 57 hour week on average—split almost evenly between debates in Chamber, committees, constituency casework and meetings. From my certain knowledge, people running their own small to medium sized businesses, headteachers/teachers, police and so on put in as many, if not more, hours than that a week. Interestingly, well over half of the AMs have said that the current salary level of £53,852 is either the SAME or MORE than they used to earn previous to becoming an AM. It is certainly not proven that ‘we continue to under pay our politicians’. On top of the salary, their allowances for office, staff, travel etc is more generous than what other public servants are entitled to.

In the case of Westminster MPs they claim to work on average a 70 hour week, split between 63% at Westminster and 37% in their constituencies. The vast majority of them don’t want to give up being an MP and see it as a long-term career. No wonder it is truly one of the best clubs to be a member of and the work environment, pay and conditions are to be envied. However, I have to state that around 60% of them claim to have taken a pay cut to become an MP.

In their deliberations, the Board was guided by the research of Hays Management Consultancy. But even its findings had several questionable parameters and value judgements referenced in arriving at their recommendations. Just like the Remuneration Board, they assumed that powers akin to Scotland will come to Wales in 2016—but this is not the case. I will not go on any more about that point …

What also surprises me, bearing in mind the significant differences in the two institutions’ powers, the proposed increase will mean that an AM in Wales will receive £64K but the Scottish counterpart only £59K. Carwyn Jones will receive £163K and Nicola Sturgeon £144K—in fact, Nicola has recently said that she will only accept £137K. The Welsh First Minister will be paid more than the UK Prime Minister! I could provide other examples but the length of this article prevents me.

These are staggering increases in difficult times—with more significant public service cutbacks on the horizon and pay rises restricted to 1% until 2017/18.  The ongoing minimum/living wage debate places the proposed 18% increase for AMs in a wider moral context. Okay, some 5 AMs have said they will give their proposed rise to charity—laudable as that is, it is missing the real point. Now is not the time to recommend staggering increases of this kind. Also, to be fair, a few AMs have said that they would oppose such a rise until the minimum/living wage debate is resolved. However, unless I am mistaken, the First Minister and the Conservative opposition Leader are silent on the issue. Maybe, they contemplate waiting for people to go on holidays in the summer before implementing the proposals—so often the tactic of wiley politicians.

In conclusion, taking everything into account, are the AMs in Wales worth this level of salary at the present time? The answer has to be NO. By all means, give them an annual rise along the same lines as other public servants and then, when the time is right, review the matter—possibly around 2018/19—if the Senedd has had its new powers.

This post written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 16/6/2015