Thursday 27 November 2014

Setting pay levels

The principle of appointing an independent panel to assess the pay of politicians rather than them setting their pay themselves has a superficial attraction.  But “It wasn’t us, guv, it was the independent experts…” will never work for me, because it always carries the (invariably unstated) caveat, “…we only selected and appointed the experts and drew up their brief”.
That’s not an argument for going back to giving them the power – but there is a much simpler and obvious alternative, which is to link the pay of our politicians in some way to average income.  That has the merit of being clear, of taking the decision out of their hands, and of linking their pay to the overall economic performance of the country.  And, subject to a probably heated debate about what the ratio of an AM’s (or MP’s) pay to the average should be (my starting point would be that it should be less than 2:1), it’s likely to be much more acceptable to the public at large.
It’s also not a million miles away from the nature of the original Chartist demand, quoted here by the Chair of the independent panel: “In the nineteenth century, the introduction of payment for Members of Parliament was one of the key reforms called for by the Chartist movement so as to enable 'an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country'”.  I rather feel that the Chartists would have been more than a little surprised to see that particular demand quoted in support of the latest proposals, though.
A relationship with average pay would not, of course, give AMs the sort of pay rise to which they are accustomed and to which they aspire, although they’d never give that as the reason for rejecting such a simple approach.  They’d probably concentrate on the sort of arguments which have been put forward for the latest proposal, which seem to rely on three main elements – level of responsibility, comparability with others, and attracting the right people.  The fact that using those arguments produces a higher number is, I’m sure, entirely coincidental to their choice of argument.  The problem is that, for many of us, none of the arguments being used actually stack up.
Firstly, let’s consider the question of the level of responsibility which they have.  Relating pay to levels of responsibility is itself a very ‘public sector’ concept.  It has nothing at all to do with the idea of payment by results (although I can well understand why elected representatives might fight shy of that concept!).  Personally, I don’t buy into the concept that pay should be set according to the level of responsibility anyway; apart from anything else, it inherently values activities and responsibilities in different ways.  However, for the sake of argument…
In reality, it is Ministers who run the country, not AMs as a whole.  Backbench AMs actually run nothing at all; their direct responsibility for any government decisions is precisely zero.  And that remains true, no matter how many extra powers are devolved to the Assembly.  Certainly, there is ‘responsibility’ in a rather different sense attached to the consideration, debate and enactment of legislation, but much of the input into that process by elected politicians consists of reading out questions and speeches prepared for them by others and voting in a way which has been agreed in advance. (As Owen suggests, perhaps the pay rise should go to those who do the real work…)
Compared to the responsibility shouldered by, say, a doctor, or a nurse, it doesn’t look that onerous to me.  And unlike in the case of a medical professional, there is no requirement for any qualifications whatsoever.  It’s a job which anyone can do – and returning to the Chartists, that was exactly their concept: legislation should be decided by ordinary working people.
Turning to comparability, I have to say that some of the comments made leave me rather more than cold.  Some of the poor things apparently believe that being paid less than people doing a similar job elsewhere in the UK will mean that they are not taken sufficiently seriously.  The salary they are paid, according to this line, reflects their status and credibility.  My heart doesn’t bleed, I’m afraid.  For some of us at least, the point of a Welsh parliament is to make a fresh start, not to be constantly looking over our shoulders at what’s happening elsewhere.  The question from that perspective is not how well the pay compares with Westminster or Edinburgh, but whether it meets Welsh needs.
And finally, we have the old chestnut about attracting people with the right level of ability, an argument with which it is hard to know where to start because there’s so much wrong with it.
I’m reminded of something a presenter once said on a training course I attended many years ago, “Negative criticism of others is merely a dishonest form of self-praise”.  It’s something that I try to bear in mind (not always entirely successfully!) when assessing the ‘ability’ of others; and it’s something that anyone who criticises the level of ability of people as a group (in this case politicians) should bear in mind, because there is an implicit assumption that those making the judgement have a higher level of ability than those being judged.  There’s also a major question around what we mean by the word ‘ability’ in this context.  The word is readily bandied around, but never defined.  However, in this case, it seems that many AMs themselves feel that there is a need for more able people in the Assembly, so let’s run with that assessment for the purposes of debate.
(Although, as an aside, I’m puzzled by the conclusion that they draw from their assessment.  Surely, “so they should resign and be replaced” is a more valid conclusion from the logic than “so they should be paid more”?)
There are a number of obvious flaws in the argument that that getting the right people means paying higher salaries:
·         It sounds a lot like the argument put forward by the bankers who the politicians are so quick to condemn.  And surely experience in that field suggests that what higher salaries attract are greedy people willing to take high risks with a very short term outlook. 
·         Unless there is a way of weeding out those deemed to be inadequate, increasing the salaries merely rewards the same group of people, most of whom are likely to be re-elected.
·         There is no mechanism that I can see whereby an increased salary makes it more likely that more able people will either be selected by their parties or elected by the voters; and assessing ‘ability’ has even less relevance to the second part of that than it does to the first.
·         Do we really want AMs who have been motivated to be there by the pay on offer?
From the perspective of most working people, our elected representatives get an extremely good deal, not only in pay, but also in expenses and allowances.  The latest proposals for pay are a distraction from the work which needs to be done in building a new and different Wales, not least because they highlight the fact that little has changed in terms of attitudes of those who represent us.  It’s a distraction which will repeat itself regularly for as long as they insist on trying to use arguments around levels of responsibility, comparability, and attracting ability to set their pay.  And, as long as they continue to do that, they have only themselves to blame for the bad press which events like this attract.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agree entirely, and that is rare!

I'd like to see performance pay for politicians, measured against very clear objectives and equally appropriate time periods. Escrow accounts and claw back.

Tough times demand tough performance measures.