I returned home to Wales yesterday, to give evidence to the Independent Panel Review on AMs' pay and expenses.
Some of you may remember that I gave evidence at the first public meeting in Llandudno, back in December. The panel, headed up by Sir Roger Jones, after taking on board our input, asked for a repeat performance in Cardiff. The panel has been doing a great job of looking at the current system, and how to make it better. Sir Roger has spoken out in the press on the topic of people needing value for money from their AMs, and was chosen for his rigourous independence.
The TPA has led the campaign for restraint and reform on MPs' expenses, and so yesterday I spoke on our behalf about the need for reform of the expenses system. We recommended that no further pay rises be given to AMs, that all expenses should be published completely and openly, and that the culture of claiming everything from an iron to an ipod must come to an end.
Our evidence was written up in an article in the Western Mail today.
While the panel were very open to our suggestions, and members of the general public who attended the meeting were very supportive, not everyone agreed. One of my co-speakers was Mr John Osmond, Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. He took issue with the tone of the meeting, and said I was 'spectacularly wrong'. He went on to argue that the debate around AMs' expenses was mainly a result of media sensationalism and that 'people's eyes glaze over when you talk about millions of pounds of public money... but they get worked up (sic) about a leather sofa'.
Surely, this is all the more reason to let taxpayers see exaclty how their money is being spent? Agreed, many people wouldn't know what £5 billion looks like, I certainly wouldn't. But they do know the state of their own household finances, and they understand that the £2000 spent on a leather sofa or a plasma screen TV could have helped put their kids through school, or pay their gas bill. Further, many 'little' amounts add up to a very very big amount. Leather sofas, ipods, irons and other luxuries should be treated as just that, and should be paid for out of AMs' sizeable taxpayer-funded pay packet.
Sir Roger rightly pulled him up on these comments about the tone of the meeting, to which Mr Osmond then said it was 'the lady to my right from a campaigning organisation' that he took issue with. He then proceeded to make a series of unrelated arguments about anarchy and representation , instead of making any useful contributions to the debate about reforming the system.
I got my right to reply, and explained that I was speaking to the TPA's experience on these matters and that, on the contrary, the very fact the Independent Panel had been set up and the number of the public at the meeting shows that democracy is alive and well, and that the best way to support AMs was to change a system that was making victims of everyone, but especially taxpayers. He left soon afterwards.
I would like to thank the members of the public who attended the meeting for their support, and showing both the panel and Mr Osmond that their eyes certainly do not glaze over when their money is being wasted. Many of them spoke passionately and eloquently in the public session, and made well-informed and knowledgeable contributions. If our work at the TPA shows anything, it's that people DO care about where and how their money is spent, and that they are ready to stand up and be counted, as many of them were yesterday at the meeting.
My sincere thanks go also to all the members of the panel and their support staff. This initiative was well organised and well executed, and was very much carried out in a spirit of co-operation and dialogue. I look forward to reading the Independent Panel's findings.