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The Big Freeze

Betsan Powys | 23:59 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

The Big Pay-out - that's what getting a Yes vote in the referendum on March 3rd was really about. At least that's what it was about if you listened to the grievances of a whole lot of people up and down the country in the run-up to the vote.

More powers? Yes ... but this was about more money for politicians. And no matter how many times those politicians argued that how much money they get, let alone whether they deserve any more, isn't up to them but is in the hands of an independent panel, there were plenty who wouldn't quite believe them.

"Come off it" said one of those in the audience after the last of the referendum debates. "I know Carwyn said it won't happen but it will when they think we're not looking any more".

Well, he can stop looking for the next four years. It's official. This morning's report from the Remuneration Board for the National Assembly has confirmed a four year pay freeze for Assembly Members.

You can be pretty sure that the board's chair, the Rt Hon George Reid, didn't have to get the thumbscrews out to convince AMs of the need for a freeze. In fact all four parties fell over themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, to pave the way for it. A pretty shrewd move, you might say and not unsurprising given the wider public spending context and the proximity to elections. All together now: we're all in this together, we hear you, we feel your pain, we'd like your vote.

So from May, Assembly members' base salary will be fixed at the March 2011 level of £53,852 per annum for four years. Factoring in inflation, that's a pay cut.

Could this deter talented people from standing for election to Cardiff Bay? The Board asked that very question. Looking at the last four years, it examined the "opportunity cost" of earnings foregone by those who were elected, had they continued in the jobs they were doing before taking office.

Their conclusion: "The data suggested that the majority of those currently holding office as Members were not likely to have been adversely affected financially when taking office, based on a comparison between the current level of Members' base salary and the current average earnings within Wales of their previous professions."

So that's a no, then. But the report goes much wider than the issue of AMs salaries and asks some pretty interesting questions about the way the Assembly's worked so far and how it might work in the future.

It seems clear that the Fourth Assembly is likely to operate in quite a different way from its predecessor. In terms of committees it'll sweep away and streamline much of the current structure. As one well placed source put it, trying to have 45 backbench members staffing 19 or so committees is an inefficient way of working in anyone's book.

Two other areas of today's report are worthy of note. Firstly, despite its hefty length and detail, it does push certain decisions into the future - among them the question of what salaries should be paid to leaders of the opposition and whips. Partly, this is due to a need to wait to see what the exact political make up of the new Assembly will be.

In terms of the opposition leaders, the Board felt they hadn't received enough information about the roles and responsibilities. This could be to do with the breakdown between work in the Assembly as opposition leader and the wider role as leader of a political party. But it seems clear that after May, the Board will get the information and make a decision.

More intriguing is its position on whether party whips should be paid. After all, it's an internal party management role at the end of the day. A whip is tasked by his or her party leader with making sure their colleagues vote the right way. In short - why should the taxpayer foot the bill for the role of keeping members in order and voting the way they should? If it's your nightclub, the logic goes, why should you be able to apply to the council to pay for your bouncers?

This year, the Government Chief Whip is paid an extra £26,385 on top of salary, and the Opposition Chief Whip an extra £12,168.

According to the Board the rationale for, and evidence supporting, the 2008 decision by the Assembly Commission to pay party whips is "opaque".

"The evidence we have received - based largely on discussions with Members and our survey - did not give us any clear understanding of the overall responsibilities of the whip role within the Third Assembly, or the likely responsibilities within the Fourth Assembly, particularly bearing in mind that there are only 60 Members in total. In addition, there was a lack of clarity about which aspects of the whip role are for the business purposes of the Assembly and which are party political."

The Board may end up keeping the payments to whips but they've certainly put a marker down.

The other area which will see a real difference from today's report will be Assembly Members' support staff. Bucking the austerity trend the amount allocated to AMs for staffing will be increased from a maximum of £80,244 this year to a maximum of £89,000 for next.

The Board is clear what it wants to see in return. From May AMs must demonstrate that at least one of their staff work "to support them in the formal committee and Plenary business of the Assembly and with a significant research element". The message is clear - the quality of scrutiny is as vital as the constituency casework undertaken by all 60 members.

George Reid himself admits it won't change the culture overnight but if there was one thing people were even more concerned about than politicians pocketing more cash, it was the extent to which laws will be scrutinised in future.

Today's report should go some way to satisfying them on both fronts.

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