Sunday, August 17, 2008

Time to sort things out.

Another day, another article about troughing politicians. Matt Withers in today's Wales on Sunday is joining in the frenzy. Politicians have been too slow in realising the degree of public contempt that all this is causing. It has to be sorted. I was at a most convivial lunch in Berriew today, when the conversation drifted onto politics, and the lady I was talking to told me that she believed all politicians to be corrupt. I've become rather used to this sort of comment. What really struck home was the matter of fact way that she said it.

I'm not entirely sure what should be done about it, because being a politician is not like many other jobs, in that it does require a place to live in two places, unless the constituency is near to Cardiff Bay or Westminster. The easiest and traditional way of allowing for this has been for a lump sum to be given to politicians which enables them to decide for themselves how to manage this - via renting, or buying or just staying in hotels. In the Assembly, its around £13,000 per year, and for MPs, I believe its about £24,000. (These figures are not exact) But this is no longer acceptable. The public disapproves of it. Inevitably one or two will spend the allowance in a way which is extravagant, and the ire of the public descends on everyone. I am looking forward to the report by Sir Roger Jones' review panel, which should bring forward an independent assessment, and appropriate recommendations.

Some of my political colleagues believe that the media is irresponsible and unfair in the way it reports on this issue. In general, I don't think this is the case. I did think that there was very little attempt to explain the reasoning behind 8.3% salary increase in Assembly Members salaries from May '07. I daresay that I could have scored walletfuls of brownie points by joined in, but I thought the increase was entirely proper - even if there was a case for phasing the increase in, as had happened with other public sector workers. Ironically, the unjustified publicity about the 8.3% diverted attention from a whole series of responsibility allowances that did deserve condemnation.

Reform is urgent. This issue is not going to go away. And full transparency is essential as well if respect for politicians is to be restored.


eric said...

I'd limit politicians Glyn, we shouldn't have professionalpoliticians on a gravy train at all.
Politicians should be limited to two terms in every four. more people stand and get elected, more ideas shared. Having an elected political elite that in wetsminster is generational isn't healthy at all.

Frank H Little said...

the lady I was talking to told me that she believed all politicians to be corrupt
Perhaps there should be more publicity for people like Norman Baker or that Tory MP (sorry, I've forgotten his name) who doesn't employ any secretarial staff because he answers all mail and e-mail himself.

Glyn Davies said...

Eric - Its a matter for the voters. I too would like to see more change in who is elected, and more judgement exercised by the public - but I'm not in favour of resticting the freedom of the voters. What we need are terms and conditions of employment that are clear and that the employer (the public) is content with.

Daran said...

I agree that "Something must be done" but that needs to be more than a review by Sir Roger Jones (though I accept that will help).

The media has clearly played a role here in requesting the information. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, maybe the AMs who have been slammed the most for their spending might have behaved differently if:
a) they'd known the information was to be made public;
b) there wasn't such a "spend spend spend" culture emanating from certain quarters in the Assembly (and I don't necessarily mean the AMs themselves).

Nobody has done anything wrong in terms of the rules. But I think Martin Shipton was right when he wrote on Saturday "Tighter claiming rules and self-imposed restraint seems the best way forward."

Glyn Davies said...

Frank - Its a mistake for any one politician or political party to claim greater honesty than everyone else. For what its worth, I've also always answered my emails and letters myself, but I'm not sure that I'd be able to do that as an MP - or for that matter as a constituency AM (if the mail is as heavy as they try to make out

Daran - transparency is the key here. I agree with you about that. I don't think self imposed restraint is any longer good enough. The issue has gone too far for that. In my opinion the public want clear restrictions and audit on what politicians spend - and they are our employers, so we had better get on with it. They simply do not trust politicians any more, and it will take a while to get that back.

Anonymous said...

Scribbling platitudes like "change" and "transparency" don't help, Glyn. What would help would be an acknowledgement by Assembly members that they are in truth only first-rank county councillors. Two-grand sofas and £1K TVs don't fit with their rank in life.

They are mostly in Cardiff for a couple of days a week and work relatively short hours. A decent hotel, of which there are many in the city, would be perfectly adequate for their needs.

They have, however, sought the trappings of parliamentarians without that status of responsibility. That is why most people are revolted by their conduct.

Frank H Little said...

The point I was making was that, as well as castigating the wicked, the media (in which I include bloggers) should praise the praiseworthy. This would help to counter the argument that all MPs and AMs had their noses in the trough.

The trouble is that the good guys tend also to be the ones least likely to blow their own trumpet.
That is no doubt why the name of no Labour politician came to mind in my attempt to be even-handed.

Anonymous said...

Glyn: AMs should look at what the average Welsh person is faced with. With a poor private sector (the Welsh economy is at the very bottom of the British league tables) many Welsh people are forced to find jobs outside Wales.

For example, there are many ordinary Welsh people working in London who live in in bedsits or share a flat/house and return to their homes in Wales on the weekends. AMs might find it instructive to go to London and see for themselves the number of Welsh people packed onto coaches out of Victoria bus station on a Friday night!

Sorry, but too many AMs are troughing and claiming they must have expenses to furnish a second home - for heavens sake they should see how average Welsh workers who work away from home have to manage - without getting expenses to spend on very expensive DVD players, sofas etc.

Glyn Davies said...

anon - The items you mention don't fit with any rank. A decent hotel would indeed be adaquate, but extremely inconvenient for any memeber who does nopt like hotels - which I don't. I'm not sure why you prefer to require any politician to stay in a hotel, rather than rent or buy their own home, if the cost to the taxpayer is the same. This rather smacks of a desire to make life awkward for AMs for its own sake.

Frank - good guys don't make news.

anon - Interesting comment. Do you think that AMs should be paid the average wage and live in bedsits or share flats? Do you think this should apply to all politicians or just Assembly Members. The danger is that only wealthy people would be able to put themselves forward for election, and people living in North Wales would be at a huge disadvantage. I tried commuting myself for a while, and it can be done from Mid Wales, but the physical pressure proved too much for me, and I'm fairly fit.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure why you prefer to require any politician to stay in a hotel, rather than rent or buy their own home, if the cost to the taxpayer is the same."

I'm sorry, but I can't see that paying for ANY hotel, even a five star one, for one or two nights a week during the Assembly terms would ever be anywhere near as costly as paying the mortgage on a flat in Adventurers' Quay all year round, when for most of the time it is unoccupied.

Assembly members are not MPs and do not have MPs' commitments in terms of time. A nice hotel should make them happy and if they don't like it, I'm sure there would be plenty of others who would go for it.

Anonymous said...

Glyn> Re your comment “only wealthy people would be able to put themselves forward for election”. Where’s the evidence that ONLY wealthy people would be able to put themselves forward for election? Point to this evidence please.

Anonymous said...

You will find out just how big the workload iswhen you get there in 2010.
If good guys don't make the news, then the soon to be ex MP of Mont must be a very very very naughty boy.........

eric said...

glyn, as with most things in life, some rules and restrictions are for the good of the many. Not a great example but a US president limited to 4 years is I thik a good idea.
I worry that we have a number of am's who will be their for life, Thats good to know one, and some who have been there have very little life experience outside the assembly too.

Glyn Davies said...

anon 1 - You are wrong about the number of nights an AM stays in Cardiff. Normally I would travel down on a Monday and return home on a Thursday while the Assembly was in session, plus an average of one/ywo nights per week the rest of the time - which makes around 110 nigts per year. Try ringing up a few hotels and apply arithmetic. You will find its at least as much as the loan interest on a mortgage, as opposed to the repayment on the mortgage which cannot be claimed by an AM. But I don't suppose you will want facts to get in the way of the point you want to make.

anon - MPs were not paid at one time, and being an MP was the preserve of the wealthy. Also until local councillors were paid it was mostly the rich and self employed who were involved.

Eric - I accept what you say, but the principle of 'voter's choice' is to srong for me to agree that restrictions are right. Even in the US, they break the rule when it suits. FDR was elected 4 times.

Anonymous said...

Glyn: some of the greatest politicians were not rich folks. We are not talking about not paying our AMs or MPs, but that we don't pay them so much that they look like troffers, which is what many of them are now. The public rightly see MPs and AMs milking expenses. What's wrong with using guest houses? I can think of my experience as a scientist having to live near a lab too far away to commute to and staying in a guest house and getting a bus or train home at weekends.

Glyn Davies said...

anon - how much do you think we should pay our Assembly Members (and MPs) and what allownces do you think we should allow them to claim? And don't just say less.

Anonymous said...

Easy one Glyn: full travel expenses and up to 100 pounds per night towards guest house stays during working sessions at the Welsh Assembly Building with review every two years; in the alternative, reimbursement of rent on a one bedroom flat. One free laptop per two years (nothing towards replacement if lost or stolen). Half of home phone bill. Up to 15 pounds per hour for hiring a non-family member assistant (again subject to review every two years). No second home expenses whatsoever.

The above expenses are not even paid to a PhD qualified scientist working hundreds of miles from his/her home. We have to find digs and pay out of our own pocket. "Moving" is not a real option because post-doc positions typically last for one or two years with a move to another part of the country and you think AMs have it hard. What a joke.

So if one buys a house, it is either used by relatives, left empty or rented out but one has to pay out of own pocket for a share of a house (if single) near the research lab or a one bedroom flat (if married). Sometimes it is too much of a strain to go home every weekend - you talk Glyn of traveling from your home to Cardiff - scientists are often more than twice the distance of your home from Cardiff. It is a hell of a strain going home every weekend.

Post-docs would love to have their digs covered by expenses, would love their weekend travel costs covered - AMs do wonderfully.

Dr. Christopher Wood said...

Respectfully Glyn, the issue is not the amount paid to AMs but rather that AMs should not be gratuitously gaining from the expenses system, a situation that is harming to the point of destruction the public’s trust in its politicians.

Glyn Davies said...

Christopher - Couldn't agree more.

Anon - Fair enough. But since AM's salaries are based on a percentage of an MP's salary (assessed independently) do you think that what you propose should be about 85% (or whatever it is) of what mps should be paid - and should the same allowances regime apply to MPs?

Anonymous said...

Re: your comment “Fair enough …”

Solution: AMs/MPs expenses should be simple and transparent to the point that politicians who are tempted to milk the system for personal gain will be discouraged from doing so.

Glyn Davies said...

anon - spot on.