What an appalling public relations cock-up. Probably the worst managed announcement by any tier of Government that I can recall. Its done great damage to the public's view of devolution and the National Assembly. I realise that I'm inviting public ridicule and condemnation by acknowledging that there is a case for the 8.3% increase in Assembly Members basic salaries. Here goes.
In 1999, an AM,'s salary was 74.3% of an MP's salary. It was less than the salary paid to a member of the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly - because the responsibility vested in the role was less. Last May, new constitutional arrangements were put in place in Wales as a product of the second Government of Wales Act, which created the capacity for the National Assembly to pass new law (following passage of Legislative Competence Orders). It was inevitable that from last May, the proportion of an MP's salary that would be paid to an AM would increase. I was asked about this during the Assembly election campaign last year. I told people that I thought it would be around 80% (its actually 82%). What happened yesterday, was exactly what I told people would happen. Problem is that almost no-one realises that, in principle, law making power was transferred to Cardiff Bay last May.
There is no reason other than the above for the massive increase announced yesterday. The decision to offer other reasons has been a disaster. I could not believe what my ears were telling me when I heard talk of AMs "working harder"- a phrase which could not be better designed to inflame public sector workers and almost everyone else who is also "working harder". AMs will not be 'working harder' but will be doing a somewhat different job, with greater responsibilty since last May. And then there is the equally irrelevant assertion that AMs will be attending more committees. This may be true, but so what. This is not a change in responsibility at all.
How different things are from when I first became involved in public life. When I first became the District Councillor for Berriew in 1976, I attended Council Meetings for free. It was possible to claim £13 -00 for each meeting, but several of us didn't claim it. Public service was our purpose. Today, the equivalent councillor is being paid over £10,000 per annum (pensionable). The Chairman is paid getting on for £30,000 - compared with the £13.00 a meeting I claimed during the 3 years that I served as Chairman in the 1980's. Now that public service is no longer regarded as its own reward, the various salaries have to be measured against each other. I do think an AMs salary should be set at the percentage independently recommended, even if its a bit higher than I'd expected. As it happens, I do think the whole level of salary is too high, but if an MP's salary remains at its current level, an AM's salary follows automatically.
Yesterday was a day of despair for those of us who want the Assembly to be a success. And there is plenty more opportunity for negative headlines. No-body's mentioned the huge allowances which will be paid to members of the Commission - which is no more than the equivalent of the House Committee that was, which used not to attract any extra when I did the job. There will also be huge new payments to the Party whips, another job which was unpaid until May, and which was much more difficult before May. And Chairman's allowances have shot up as well. I can see the tap of public anger drip, drip, dripping for a while yet. It may even be that there may be some backing down. We shall see.
And finally, I have to comment on the willingness of AMs to argue the case in public. Yesterday, Radio Wales rang me at about 11.30, asking me to appear on Richard Evans' programme at 12.00. My immediate response was "Why don't you ask one of the current AMs". I received confirmation of what I already knew. No-one was available. This is not good enough. A politician's salary is paid for by the taxpayer, and the recipient should be willing to defend the level at which it is set. I've never had much time for politicians who dive under the desk whenever there is a whiff of cordite in the air. Yesterday was a very bad day for devolution - and it shouldn't have been.