Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Repeating the same mistakes

Perhaps it was a little unfair to refer to the decision by some AMs to refuse the planned pay rise as “student politics” as Lee Waters did.  But seeing politicians scrambling to be seen to be doing the right thing, almost invariably caveated with variations on the wording “at a time of public sector pay restraint” wasn’t terribly edifying.  The implication is that it’s the timing rather then the principle which is the problem, and that, if only the lower paid were getting a bigger rise then their large rise would be OK too.
I certainly, though, take the point that a large disparity between the salaries of AMs and MPs can give the impression that we value one set of politicians more than another.  But there are two things wrong with simply chasing the level of salary elsewhere.  The first is that two wrongs don’t make a right – the fact that one group of people are overpaid doesn’t make it right to overpay another group simply to maintain comparability.  And the second is that it reduces the question of how we ‘value’ our politicians to a simple financial equation, and there surely ought to be more to it than that.
In confirming the recommendations of the independent salary review body last week, the chair said something to the effect that they’d listened carefully to the public reaction that they’d received, but had found nothing to make them change their minds.  What that tells us above all is that, whatever the criteria being used to set salaries, acceptability in the court of public opinion – let alone public outrage – isn’t one of them.
That in turn raises the question of who sets the criteria that they use, and who appoints the people who then apply those criteria.  And the answer to that question brings us right back to the people who are washing their hands of the problem, and claiming that the board is an independent one over which they have no control.  Because those statements are only part of the story.
The criteria to be used are set by legislation, available here.  In essence, the AMs themselves have set the criteria which are to be used – and a very limited set of criteria they are too, amounting in essence to:
(a) providing Assembly members with a level of remuneration which—
(i) fairly reflects the complexity and importance of the functions which they are expected to discharge, and
(ii) does not, on financial grounds, deter persons with the necessary commitment and ability from seeking election to the Assembly,
Criteria set by AMs can be changed by AMs; if they don’t like the answers being produced, they can change the criteria being used by further legislation. 
And who appoints the members of the Panel?  Well, that would be the Assembly Commission – which includes, conveniently, one representative from each of the political parties represented in the Assembly.  Yes, the same parties which are now complaining about the recommendations made by the people they appointed applying the criteria which they set.
The biggest argument being used to justify the large increase on an already high salary is all about attracting the most able people to sit in the Assembly.  But what is the mechanism by which that happens?  It seems to be down to blind faith that higher salaries = more ability, but there is absolutely no evidence to support that blind faith.
Even if we accept that it is true that there is a problem with the level of ability of at least some Assembly members (and for the sake of argument, I’m prepared to accept that, although I’d also accept the same proposition in relation to the – higher-paid – Members of Parliament, too by way of demonstrating that paying them more doesn’t actually solve the problem), increasing their salary doesn’t get rid of them, it simply puts more money in their pockets.  It’s a remarkably ineffective way of addressing the perceived issue.
There are no formal criteria for the job, and no qualifications are required.  The ‘ability’ required is undefined.  The selection process is not far off being random in relation to applying any tests of ability.  Deploying a salary increase as the only conceivable response to the perceived problem is only ever going to mean that we pay more for the same sort of people.  And the beneficiaries?  Ah, that would be the same people who set the criteria and appoint the people to apply them…


Anonymous said...

It’s ironic AM’s and especially Welsh Government Minister’s most of whom believe in more powers are the ones doing most to undermine devolution, this was a golden opportunity for any party to show leadership, question the principle of large salaries, the workload of Welsh MP’s and the number of Councillors and make a case for reform, but all we got were mealy mouthed words that are playing into the growing anti devolution sentiment in Wales.

Anonymous said...

No one can object to AM's salaries increasing for increased work load as long as MP's salaries decrease by the same amount as they have decreased work load. So there is no net increase in cost to the taxpayer.

John Dixon said...

Anon 12:39,

"No one can object to AM's salaries increasing for increased work load..."

Really? That depends on a number of factors, including whether it is really possible to quantify their workload at all, and whether the workload is the same for all; but mostly on whether you believe that 'workload' whatever that is, should determine pay. For those of us who believe that there is a much simpler solution - such as linking AMs' pay to average earnings in some way - 'workload' doesn't enter into the equation. We don't have to be bound by the idea of paying for the 'quantity' of work at all.