Some of you may remember our involvement with the Independent Review Panel, set up by the Welsh Assembly, which was tasked with looking into AMs' expenses, headed by Sir Roger Jones. The review was established last summer, to deliver "a system of financial support fro Assembly Members that is fair and transparent and which represents value for money."
The TPA was invited to give evidence to the Panel. I attended both public sessions in Llandudno and Cardiff, and found Sir Roger and his colleagues open, polite, fair-minded and reasonable in my interactions with them. The review really was conducted in a spirit of dialogue, discussion and with the aim of finding the best solution that would give taxpayers value for money, allow AMs to do their jobs effectively, and restore public trust in their elected officials.
The conclusions of the Panel were released yesterday, and they look good.
Importantly, the conclusions always and everywhere bear in mind that AMs must be financially enabled to perform their duties - that it's in everyone's interest to have elected representatives from every background and walk of life.
The whole report is pretty radical, and will go a long way to restoring public trust if its measures are implemented swiftly and effectively. Pleasingly, most of the proposals we put forward on behalf of the TPA have been adopted:
- That all expenses must be documented, justified and published online.
- That AMs' pay should stay the same.
- No more mortgage interest payments are to be made, and that the Assembly should provide basic accomodation, so that taxpayers' money does not continue to be thrown down the drain every year with no realisation of capital appreciation in the properties.
- If AMs want to purchase luxury household items, they must do so out of their own pockets.
- The food allowance will be done away with, on the basis that even if you weren't an AM, you would have to eat.
As those of you familiar with our work will know, these are all core principles that we have been recommending at evey opportunity as ways to clean up the system and move forward to an era of increased transparency and accountability. I cannot fault the Panel on its courage in recommending these steps, even in the face of what surely must have been considerable political pessure.
Not much, in fairness. There is a time lag on some of these proposals, where the Review Panel has said the proposals should only come into effect in 2011. I would argue that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing now. Obviously we don't want indecent haste, and when it comes to living arrangements, I am all too aware that families, children and logistics have to be taken into account. But there are also things that could be scrapped tomorrow.
One such example is the employment of family members. The Panel recommends that while no new family members should be hired, existing ones in employment must be allowed to stay on. I don't see any reason for this - why not just give them 3 - 6 months notice, as you would when normally making someone redundant?
Another is the infamous resettlement grants. I have always found it objectionable that any elected official receives a fat payout from the taxpayer upon failing to get re-elected. This is both a reward for failure and a totally unnecessary expense. It's a very important part of democracy that MPs and AMs are punished when they don't perform, and get voted out. The panel agrees that retiring AMs should not get a resettlement grants, but if they stand and fail to get elected, they would still be eligible. They should have gone the whole way and scrapped this scheme altogether.
More of the same for Westminster?
In sum, this report is groundbreaking in its reach and radical nature. Sir Roger and his colleagues are to be congratulated on it, and the Assembly for instigating the process almost a year ago. Wales has led the way here, and will reap the benefits once all these measures are implemented and taxpayers finally have the transparency they so deserve.
We can only hope that Sir Christopher Kelly shows similar courage when it comes to overhauling the even more tangled and rotten expenses system in Westminster.