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.
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.
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.
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.