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Googlies and sticky wickets

Betsan Powys | 10:47 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

cricket_ball_rain_203_203x152.jpgLast week I sat with four politicians from the four major parties while a hall full of young people in Newport proved that forgiveness, as far as politicians and their expenses are concerend, is still a long, long way off.

Nick Ramsay faced the first salvo. "Why do you need two beds anyway?" asked a girl with attitude - the kind you as chair like having in the audience. "I didn't. The irony is I'd bought a bed and a sofa" he said, thinking what felt to him like a reasonable response would lead to the same from his audience. He was wrong. "Why should we pay for your bed and sofa anyway?" A boy from another school had nabbed the microphone. The applause was resounding. You got the feeling at least half the audience wondered why we need to pay politicians anything. Eleanor Burnham went on the attack. She got nowhere.

"Why do we need so many elected politicians in this country" called out one teenager. "Look at America. Huge and with far fewer of them!" The audience whooped and cheered.

A single hand went up, a young girl who had the guts to suggest she was rather pleased we had more politicans. It felt to her more democratic in this country than in the States. Brave girl.

You may then be surprisred to hear that the Conservatives made clear at their weekly lobby briefing that they intend to oppose a new measure - or Welsh law - that would allow the creation of an independent body to set the pay and expenses of Assembly Members. The Presiding Offcier is making a statement on the measure this afternoon.

The idea hasn't come from nowhere. It was one of the recommendations, if you remember, made by Sir Roger Jones and his panel. They wanted to see the current link between the pay of MPs and AMs broken and an independent Welsh panel appointed to decide how much AMs are paid and take home in expenses.

The Assembly Commission say: establishing an independent board would be one important step in the bid to create "an open and transparent process which will instil public confidence".

The Conservatives say: no way! At least that's my interpretation of Darren Millar's words: "this is a point we're not prepared to concede on". In fact I'd almost say he leaned right in front of Nick Bourne to make sure the point was made clearly.

Why? Their argument went along these lines: it wouldn't help the situation one jot, it would open the can of worms that is regional pay - we got to allusions to Welsh teachers being paid less than English teachers pretty quickly - it would be a waste of money and anyway it wasn't central to the recommendations made by Roger Jones.

The Commission, pressed on cost and waste say the new body would cost £25,000 to set up and in subsequent years would cost £5,000 per annum to run. I've looked back at the Roger Jones report. Setting up an independent panel is, from my reading, a "principal recommendation". You can decide whether that makes it 'central' or not.

What about public perception? Wouldn't the teenagers in Newport and their mums and dads and aunties and uncles and teachers and friends be taken aback to hear the Conservatives don't want an independent body established to determine their pay? Why should this play badly with the public, said Nick Bourne, unless the "public perception line" is "pushed by people who want this body set up".

What of the other parties?

The Liberal Democrats are fully supportive of the measure.
Plaid are fully supportive of the measure.

Labour? They're still discussing their response. I'm told by a few sources now that one sticking point is that some members of the Labour group want a say, a vote even, on who is appointed to the "independent" board. Work that one out. I don't know about you but that feels to me just a bit like turkeys being prepared to vote for Christmas, as long as the catering board are all fully signed up vegetarians.

So: had the Conservatives expected Labour to come out and oppose the measure too, safety in numbers and all that ... only to find they haven't? Do they now find themselves alone, defending a wicket that feels rather stickier than they'd imagined?

It's very tempting to think so.

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