The Assembly’s eye-watering staffing costs proves there is a Magic Money Tree – for some

The Senedd’s central funnel

By Daran Hill

It takes a great deal to make the senior staff member of two Yes for Wales campaigns admit to being ashamed of an aspect of devolution, but that is exactly how I felt this week when it appeared in the press that staffing costs at the National Assembly for Wales have increased by 90% in ten years.

Let me be clear about four things at the outset:

1) I am as committed to making devolution a success as I was in 1997 and 2011. I am not writing this to ‘do down’ Wales or to undermine devolution. Rachel Banner’s motivation will be different in the quotes she has given to the press.

2) Concern with a “jobs for the boys” culture is as pronounced as it was twenty years ago, and that is one of the reasons I am so angry at these staffing costs figures.

3) I accept that there would have needed to be some expansion in staff during that period to deal with the additional responsibilities accrued. It is a ludicrous position to suggest otherwise.

4) I accept that Wales deserves to be funded fairly. I am not arguing for less money for Wales.

However, the sheer scale of this additional funding must be put in context. Those who have taken to the digisphere to defend have talked about relatively small sums involved (not my interpretation of £10.3 million pounds) or the fact that the Assembly budget accounts for only 0.3% of the total amount paid over to the Welsh Government in the block grant.

Others have explained to me that the staffing rise includes taking in-house the IT support, which was previously subcontracted.

These are all points worth listening to, but at the same time, we should also remember the biggest context point of all: this extensive staffing expansion has occurred at the same time as a massive reduction in the funding and capacity of the rest of the public sector in Wales.

Austerity has not mattered in the National Assembly. Indeed, the increase in staffing and resource may have been incremental and year on year, but this cumulative spending spree is the responsibility of every single Assembly Member.

Every one of them voted these rises through and they did so at the expense of the rest of the public sector in Wales.

Outcry

Because, put simply, every single job created on the parliamentary side has deprived the Welsh Government of cash to invest in services or protect one of the many civil servant jobs lost over the bulk of the same period.

I make no apology for having preferred to see jobs protected in service delivery as opposed to increasing those delivering Assembly outreach projects.

Can you just imagine the outcry if the same situation had happened in local government in Wales? Try and picture it: front line services being cut (not hard to visualise) coupled with a 90% increase in staffing costs for those supporting the local councillors who scrutinise the Council Cabinet but do not actually take the decisions themselves.

This is the comparison that should be made and I’ve found that it has been local councillors who have implemented austerity for seven years who have been, regardless of party, the most appalled by this week’s figures.

Still not convinced I have a serious point? Then drill down into some of the facts.

1) There are now 448 staff in the National Assembly for Wales. This compares to 450 in the Scottish Parliament, which is a much bigger institution with significantly more members and significantly more responsibilities. You can’t use the “extra responsibilities” argument as a justification for everything without comparing the two institutions.

2) The 448 staff do not include Assembly Members themselves, or their office staff either in the Assembly or in the constituencies. The number also does not include the cleaners or the caterers, both of whom are franchised out. 448 people are at the fees office, at the communications team, and working on outreach, clerking, translation, research and the range of other services designed to both support AMs and propagandise the Assembly across Wales.

3) If my maths is right, then £19.8million spent on 448 staff gives an average staff cost of £44,196.43 (wages plus staffing costs). Am I right or am I missing something fundamental here? This issue isn’t just about the number of staff, but the sheer amount of taxpayer’s money they cost.

4) The media don’t dare criticise because they are housed within the National Assembly estate.

5) Most Assembly Members I’ve known have had misgivings about the way the Commission runs the Assembly estate but would never dream of breaking the whip to vote against the annual budget increases.

Bizarre

And now to some case examples. The maximum number of Assembly Members on a Committee is eight. The maximum number of times they meet in the maximum 32 weeks a year the Assembly sits is once a week, though I accept that Finance Committee has very occasionally met more regularly than this.

Every Committee is supported by usually four staff: a Clerk, a Second Clerk, a Deputy Clerk, and a Team Support. On top of that a specific PR person is assigned to each committee. They are part of an integrated team including legal, research, Communications and outreach which can be anything up to 15 people. Or, to put it another way, 2 staff members per Assembly Member.

All this produces huge briefing packs which it would take a weekend to read and an immense amount of time and effort to try and get the AMs to read out the “appropriate” questions in Committee rather than the ones their constituents, or staff, or own intelligence might have produced.

As a clerk was once overheard joking (presumably), “How can we have a rigorous inquiry if Members don’t ask the questions we give them?” I can attest to this happening a lot in the fourth Assembly, even if the tendency has thankfully reduced in the fifth.

Let me continue. The Research Service in the Assembly is of an equivalent size to that of the Scottish Parliament. They do a tremendous job in serving Members by producing high quality and analytical pieces of work.

However, it is somewhat bizarre the service has grown to its current size comparative to the size of the institution and – this being the killer point – the relative size of the responsibilities held in Wales compared to Scotland.

I could go on. I asked a perfectly reasonable question on twitter last year about the Assembly operating against its own perverse rules. It took five attempts and five days to get an answer, and when I finally did it was accompanied by the excuse that the “person” running the twitter feed had “been off.”

I nearly responded by calling the cyber police to report a hack of the National Assembly twitter feed since it had been spewing out stuff and answering other people’s queries or issuing banalities throughout the intervening period.

And all this without touching on the amount of money spent on the Assembly estate. I’ve been told the new Committee rooms in Tŷ Hywel have cost in the region of £1.4-£1.5million.

There’s no available FOI to corroborate this but just to give this one some context, these rooms are fall-back Committee space for days where there are four meetings taking place. Even though they are state of the art, they sit empty most days or are used for internal meetings.

Freeze

Right. Rant bit over. Time for a bit of positive politics and a few solutions to try and turn this whole situation around. Because, believe me, if it isn’t there will be consequences.

1) The Assembly Commission should commit to a staffing freeze for four years.

2) The Assembly Commission should meet any wage rises for existing staff from within existing budgets.

3) The Assembly Commission budget should face an annual cut of 1% to 2% for the next four years to – ever so partially – offset their decade of picking the fruit of the magic money tree.

4) A voluntary redundancy package should be introduced equivalent to staff within a specified percentage of the overall cost of the Assembly.

5) The Assembly Commission should commit to a review of all new posts created recently where the postholders are still in their probation phase. This may sound vindictive but it’s easier to downscale before unnecessary new staff are bedded in.

The National Assembly needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Every single member over the last decade has contributed to this.  You can’t just go on nodding through budget increases requested by Assembly Commissioners on behalf of, basically, Assembly staff. It’s as if the rules that have applied to the rest of the public sector have had no meaning in the National Assembly for Wales. That must stop.

You can’t just go on nodding through budget increases requested by Assembly Commissioners on behalf of, basically, Assembly staff. It’s as if the rules that have applied to the rest of the public sector have had no meaning in the National Assembly for Wales. That must stop.

Saying all of which means I’m going to be about as popular as Jimmy Savile or the architect who designed the Iron Ring the next time I go over to the Assembly. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

If you’re still unconvinced then I’d guess you’re probably one of those people who wants a new sign on the door saying Parliament and a hundred or two hundred extra AMs or MWPs or whatever instead.

Ok, fair enough, that’s your choice. But just consider this: how can you make the case for more AMs and the inevitable increases in direct support staff (all outside the 448) without addressing the current over staffing?

I’ll make Wales an offer: get the staffing sorted and reduced in the National Assembly and I’ll back more Assembly Members. Promise the number of Assembly staff won’t exceed 448 even with extra powers and politicians and then I will back that “phase of devolution” as vigorously and passionately as I did in 1997 and 2011.

There are fundamental issues at stake. Scrutiny has a place, scrutiny has value, but scrutiny also has a price. This week we found out just how eye-wateringly high that is.

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28 Comments

  1. Keith Parry

    The problem is twenty years of one party rule. We desperately need a change of government in the Bay.

    • In what way is that the problem? This has been the collective decision making of every party in the Assembly. To blame one party is both partisan and delusional.

    • Capitalist and Welshnash

      It is not just 21 years of one-party rule, this is a side-effect of 94 years of one-party dominance in Wales and the internal networks which that has built across the Valleys and Caerdydd. We do not need an opposition party in Wales, we need another major party to take power, and it makes no difference which party that is. Plaid, I dare say it, will you not work with the Tories to get Labour out? Our country needs anyone but Labour.

  2. Is all this proven? Where is the evidence?

  3. Geraint Talfan Davies

    A thoroughly constructive critique on all counts. An agenda for the recently appointed Chief Executive?

  4. Thanks Geraint. I’m not going to single people out. This has been a collective crime against public finances, and needs a collective solution.

  5. To be honest £10 million does seem a relatively small sum to me, to be getting all that worked up about. Im all for scrutiny regarding who does what, but don’t pennypinch, for the sake of some masochistic feel good factor.

    Im much more interested in how much is spent in the Welsh office and the rest of the carry over Welsh civil service and who does what and why.

    More scrutiny and more investigative journalism into the rule brittania civil servants who are there to simply deliver dictats from London.

    When making cost comparisons compare to Whitehall, but on delivery go for your life and compare to Scotland.

    • Spot on! There are more important things, and much bigger amounts, to focus on.

      • RJ – the bigger amounts are generally authorised by the same bunch of budget administrators that have grown in size as described in the above article. Waste, copious amounts of badly directed spending is happening right across the piece as you know from your own investigations.

  6. Oh please Syr Daran, please support the next phase of devolution.

    Please support it as you [keep in civil – Ed] as your business expands.

    I’m with Keith, out with the old guard. I’m sick to death of these disingenuous attention-seekers

  7. The subset of civil servants I had the displeasure of interacting with (other than 1 super star) over broadband problems were a cracture of
    what broken in subsets of the public sector. They really could not give a ****. Beyond indifferent. A solid case for a clear out
    and starting again, maybe the direction was set by their minister Julie James. Hard to tell from the outside. I am sure there are great civil servants in the Welsh Government doing great work, but other than 1 chap, the 10 or so I have encountered were not fit to flip burgers.

    When, as a member of the public, your only interaction with the Welsh civil servants has been one where they are at best ineffective and indifferent and at worst obstructive and clueless, you unconciously assume the whole organisation is a waste of space that does not have any grasp of peoples lives outside the Cardiff Bay bubble.

  8. In my experience those Welsh Government staff that I have come into contact with over the last five years are extremely busy, hard working and enthusiastic people. What is galling here is that Welsh Government funded bodies like Natural Resources Wales have seem there staffing levels fall quite drastically with a widespread loss of expertise so that their ability to be effective, to advise and to be impartial has been significantly reduced. This in turn puts our natural resources in peril which, let’s face it, are one of Wales’s main USP’s.

  9. A true reflection, having worked at the assembly, i know fukk well that it is staffed by over paid and under utilised staff in many departments who are more oncerned about their teabreaks and paygrades than the process of devolution. People were promoted beyond their capacity andgiven huge wages without any clear idea of what their departments were supposed to do. Money was spent on some japanes artist who made a mural for a bus, were ther not any welsh ones good enough? Laptops and equipment were thrown at one to do so called outreach work and were not used at all as that kind of work didnot then comply with external working guidelines . i was absolutely appalled by the complete lack of financial responsibility, seems things have not improved then

  10. Sorry gents, I’ll focus on the 10 million I choose to focus on. If you have something meaningful or researched to say on Welsh Government spending, by all means do so. I don’t buy the argument that £10m is irrelevant.

    • Quite correct. Rigorous scrutiny of several bundles of expenditure will without doubt identify lots of opportunities for cost reduction/elimination. Senior management went through a phase of expansion with budgets to match and most of them got carried away with the task – the spending on bureaucracy that is, but failed in many respects to embed a culture of public service and performance to match the outlay. Result – a mess.

    • Fine, if you want to indulge in tree spottting. Undoubtedly thefe will be savings to be had and people who shouldn’t be there, as in all walks of life.

      Whats the big picture here, who are the bad guys, who are the good guys and what are they doing and why. If they are simply pri. ks drinking coffee all day, prove it and probe the culture and what goes with it. The actual numbers dont interest me to be honest, I see w. nkers in the private sevtir exploting Wales all the time and getting plaudits for it. Need more info in this one to even begin to be sceptical.

  11. Excellent assessment. Remember we still have the political structures which were in place pre devolution. What happenned to local authority reform? We seem to be incapable of rationalisation and making hard decisions. Which other country in the World has per capita more politicians and public servants than Wales? How can the solution be further expansion.

  12. Northern Ireland?!

  13. There’s a tendency in the Welsh (or should that be ‘Welsh’?) media to focus on Assembly costs, which is why they always wheel out Rachel Banner and True Wales to slag off the Assembly but never report on the cost of Westminster, or the cost of MPs, or the Welsh Office. These things are all part of a single, connected, cost of governing us – badly, I might add, at pretty much every level. To prise one out for scrutiny and let the others go (unless of course Nation Cymru is planning a series of pieces about the different costs and staffing of other forms of government) doesn’t tell us much. While I’m all for keeping costs down, I don’t have much respect for lobbying firm bosses, with a rather over-egged personal sense of themselves as saviours of devolution referenda, picking and choosing what they’re going to condemn, and making out that their support is somehow worth more than that of the rest of us. ‘I’ll make Wales an offer…’! Who does this guy think he is?

    • don’t know the man at all but he is quite right to ask the question. Of course there are several other questions to be addressed and when all are added up it may roll into ONE big question – along the lines of – “why does government cost so much ?”, or better still, – “what are the real valuable services and how do we trim out the rest ?”

      Bitching about one man’s “right” to pose a question sounds a bit like you could end up backing CJ ‘s right to keep on avoiding answering any questions, and we’ve already had ample taste of that !

  14. I don’t think anyone is questioning his ‘right’ – they’re saying that government costs a great deal, that we’re over-governed, that we’re by and large expensively governed, and that focusing on one part of the picture to the exclusion of the other – related – parts might be worthwhile but will only ever be partial unless it’s all seen in toto.
    Objections to the generally self-regarding tone of the article aside, it seems to me yet another crack at an easy target, i.e. a relatively transparent, politically hamstrung democratic institution, that always gets the flak while the House of Lords, Westminster, the Welsh office etc. go unscrutinised.
    I don’t object to the man’s right to say it, or to the point he raises. I also don’t know him, and wasn’t aware of the role he played in the referenda, and I don’t care. But the rhetoric is rather rather self-aggrandizing , and if I had a pound for every person who told me they’d played a key role in the referenda I’d be able to pay for the assembly staffing costs myself..
    Any question of how many AMs there are is secondary to an increase in powers and a corresponding decrease in Westminster and Wales Office powers. People in the Cardiff Bay bubble accusing other inhabitants of said bubble of being in a bubble is a pointless circle.
    I’m all for articles on this subject – so let’s see Daran or someone else on the Welsh Office, on the cost of Westminster too.

    • the true cost of Westminster/Whitehall.Buck House etc etc is our freedom – I can’t quantify it , I don’t need to, I just know that it’s too much. That said I don’t want to see Wales secure its independence and be saddled all at once with the burden of unproductive bureaucracy and the elitism that goes with it.

      Best way of solving the Bay bubble is to burst the bloody thing, I’m surprised it hasn’t burst already as there are plenty of pricks inside it !

  15. Petroc ap Seisyllt

    the £44k average will include about 20% for Employers NI, and employer Pension contributions, so nearer £35k average, but I agree its a lot of staff, and if Scotland really only has the same number then its s shocker. Perhaps the Scots hide them better? Or maybe our aelodau seneddol yn dwpach ac angen lawer iawn mwy o gymorth!

  16. Dyfrig Jones

    I’m less familiar with the inner working of the Assembly than Daran (aren’t we all?), but his description of committee support sounds as if this is a bloated version of the model used in local government. Any attempts to cut back on staff will be met by the kind of outrage that politicians are very bad at withstanding – job losses rarely being vote winners. However, one carrot that might help motivate members would be a modest increase in their research staff, to partially offset the larger losses in committee (and other commission) staff? This would have the twin advantages of cutting costs while also chipping away at the power of (nominally) “apolitical” civil servants, which fosters the groupthink that stymies innovation within the assembly.

  17. For all your protests I wonder what your aim is? If I do you a disservice I apologise.

    Rachel Banner needs to consider what the assembly does for us.

    Bellow are some of the things i could find that devolution has given wales so far with limited powers.

    .free prescriptions for all
    · Nine new hospitals and huge investment in new hospital equipment .
    · New Kidney Transplant Unit, PET scanner and Women’s Unit at UHW.
    · New Cardiff and Vale Breast Centre.
    · No smoking in public places.

    · Biggest investment in school buildings ever.
    · Thousands more teachers and teaching assistants.
    · The Foundation Phase – new education system for 3-7-year-olds.
    · Free breakfast schemes in over 1000 schools – 56 in Cardiff.
    · UK’s first Children’s Commissioner.
    · Free nursery places for all 3 and 4-year-olds.
    · Thousands more modern apprenticeships.

    · Funding for eco-schools.
    · Reduction in use of plastic bags.
    · More Blue Flag beaches.
    · Investment in renewable energy and recycling.
    · Grants for insulation and new boilers.

    · Free bus passes for the over-60s and the disabled – 64,111 in Cardiff.
    · World’s first Older People’s Commissioner.
    · Free swimming for school children and older people.
    · ProAct and ReAct schemes to combat global recession and keep people in work.
    · Free entry to national museums and galleries.
    · Wales for Africa scheme.
    · 1305 additional affordable homes in Cardiff.
    · £7 million extra to mend potholes and buy road salt — £677,000 in Cardiff.

    · Welsh students protected from the tuition fees hike facing students in England
    · Free school breakfasts kept – the English government want to scrap them
    · Educational Maintenance Allowance kept for young people in Wales– scrapped in England,
    · NHS kept market-free.
    · Welsh Jobs Fund promised to create 4,000 jobs for young people– Tory-led coalition scrapped .Future Jobs Fund.
    · 500 more Police Community Support Officers promised .

    The value of exports from Wales more than doubled between 1999 and 2013″ doubled since the set up of the assembly.

    Cost is relevant but I don’t want to go back to the good old pre assembly days

    • Ms Banner is NOT a friend of Wales. Her intentions are to demolish any semblance of Wales as an entity and she starts on the job by attempting to denigrate then demolish Y Cynulliad.

      Most of the comments on here, positive and negative, are made with the aim of improving the devolved experience, hopefully as we move towards a greater goal. Any attack on cost is therefore made with the aim of improving our performance, not to take the wheels off the wagon. Most of the critics, including myself, wish to keep the wagon, oil its wheels and other moving parts, and with a much improved performance in future change the bloody driver because the Labour corpse at the wheel is a primary factor in causing many of the inefficiencies and waste that exist currently !

  18. It’s perfectly proper to ask questions about this spending, but a few points are worth making –

    1. The Assembly’s accounts are scrutinised by the Wales Audit Office and are made public every year.

    2. Comparisons with the Scottish Parliament are not especially helpful, because unlike its Scottish cousin, the Assembly is a bilingual institution. Inevitably, this must mean some additional staff.

    3. There does not appear to be any evidence to back up the assertion that Assembly Members are unhappy with the costsf. If they are, surely they are best placed to do something about it. They cannot expect to be taken seriously on this if they willingly vote through the budget increases.

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