How much should we pay Assembly Members?

Sandy Blair argues that the increased responsibility of Assembly Members should be reflected in their salary.

How much should we pay a Member of the National Assembly? It’s a question that is sure to generate some lively answers up and down the country, not all of which would be suitable to print here. But it is a question of fundamental importance to our democratic system that we have grappled with the UK for many years.

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.

Much more recently, of course, the debate has been coloured by the expenses scandal that so rocked Westminster and its impact on the popular view of politicians. That unfortunate period in parliamentary history was fuelled by the refusal of successive parliaments and governments to tackle the issue openly and correctly for fear of public criticism.

In Wales, we can be proud of the fact that the National Assembly took the lead in the UK and set about putting in place an independent body to take decisions about pay out of the hands of politicians well before equivalent steps were taken elsewhere.

That independent body is the National Assembly for Wales Remuneration Board. Established by legislation, our statutory duty is to provide Assembly Members with a level of remuneration which:

fairly reflects the complexity and importance of the functions which they are expected to discharge, and does not, on financial grounds, deter persons with the necessary commitment and ability from seeking election to the Assembly.

This week, we have published our salary proposals for AMs in the next Assembly. The headline proposal on which we are consulting is that the base salary of an AM should be £64,000 in 2016. After that, their pay will move in line with median earnings in Wales.  This is a significant change from the 2015 level of £54,390. So how and why have we come to that conclusion?

The job of an AM is now on a par with that of the other national parliamentarians of the UK in terms of legislative, financial and oversight responsibility. And from 2016, the role will carry even more responsibility with new authority over taxation and government borrowing and a likely further increase in the breadth of legislative competence.

The Assembly undertakes its responsibilities with far fewer Members than other parliaments in the UK and overseas and is smaller than many local authorities in Wales. Unlike the UK Parliament there is no second or revising chamber, so the burden of getting devolved legislation right for Wales falls solely on the 60 elected Members.  This requires a concentration of expertise and weight of responsibility that is not seen elsewhere.

As a result, there is no hiding place in the National Assembly: all Members carry a high degree of either executive authority or responsibility for the oversight of government. In turn, this means that the institution cannot afford to have Members who are not up to the job.

Inevitably our proposal will be portrayed by some as a pay rise for existing Members at a time when our public services are facing financial cutbacks and many people are seeing little or no growth in their earnings. My colleagues on the Board and I do not view it in that way. Our proposals are not a commentary on the performance of the Assembly or its Members – that is a matter for the electorate to judge. Rather, we have attempted to make an objective assessment of what the role of an AM in the 2016 Assembly warrants in terms of remuneration. In arriving at a figure, we approached the task from three different angles and combined the evidence from each. Our three broad considerations were:

•             to ensure that the salary properly reflects the responsibilities of AMs in the fifth Assembly and the quality of the individuals needed to discharge such a vital role;

•             the value of the total package of remuneration including both salary and pension; and

•             remuneration for comparable roles and earnings in the wider economy, particularly Wales.

It is important to stress that we did not just pluck figures out of the air, but examined a wide range of comparative data and sought external advice in addition to the Board’s own expertise. The fact that our research and analysis in respect of each of those led us to similar conclusions gives us assurance that our thinking is sound.

Our proposals on salary should be seen as part of a package of changes we are making to the remuneration of AMs. Much of the cost of the increase in the base salary, for example, is offset by savings from changes we are making to the pension scheme and to reductions in the additional salaries paid to office holders.

Clearly, many people in Wales face difficult economic circumstances at the moment and the pressure on public spending means that some will argue now is the wrong time to address this issue. But we believe that problems we face demonstrate precisely why Wales needs to attract the highest calibre people to be Members of the National Assembly. To be less bold, to set a salary that does not reflect the weight of responsibility carried or the quality of individual needed, would be to do the institution and the country a disservice in the long term.

Wales needs good governance and good government. That requires a strong, effective National Assembly. For it to be so, the individual Members of the Assembly must be exceptional in their motivation and abilities and remunerated appropriately.

We look forward to a considered and measured debate about the role of remuneration in influencing the strength and success of the Assembly that Wales will have in the future.

Sandy Blair is the Chair of the Remuneration Board of the National Assembly for Wales.

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