MSPs at Holyrood have just awarded themselves an additional £3 million annual “bonus”, although they don’t quite see the word quite in those terms.
The money is being justified on the basis that the additional powers given to the Scottish Parliament, and operational from next year, will mean more responsibilities and, therefore, the need to hire more staff.
I suppose taxpayers should at least be relieved that MSPs will no longer be permitted to fill the new, ‘necessary’ posts with family members, as they have done in the past although as far as I know the law preventing this occurring does not extend to ‘cronies’.
That the additional allowances will not be open to abuse is uncertain, given the frequency of the previous practice of employing family members as ‘researchers’ and the widespread abuse of the Edinburgh Accommodation Allowance which has effectively allowed those MSPs with enough gall to make large profits by playing the capital’s property market using taxpayers’ money.
On the other hand, if one gives our parliamentarians the benefit of the doubt and trusts them to use the extra monies solely for the purpose for which they are intended then the move would appear to be entirely justified. However it should be possible to fund this – at least partly – without a complete recourse to additional public money.
When the Daily Telegraph exposed the Westminster MPs expenses scandal, so outrageous were some of the claims (e.g. a duck house, a moat and no end of 42-in widescreen televisions and subscriptions to Sky Sports) that one otherwise very obvious anomaly managed to avoid the radar, i.e. the expenses claimed by Westminster MPs representing Scottish constituencies.
As part of the devolution settlement, the number of constituencies in Scotland was cut from 72 to 59 but the salaries, expenses and other forms of remuneration among the reduced lobby continued.
This was despite the fact in Scotland most of the everyday matters that trouble constituents – standards in schools, NHS waiting times, the state of the roads, late running of buses and trains, crime and anti-social behaviour – are within the remit of Holyrood.
As such, most people with a problem will take it to their MSP rather than their MP, who no longer has many of the nuts and bolts responsibilities in relation to constituency work. Clearly, therefore, Scottish MPs do not require the same amount of back-up staff and, consequently, allowances to fund them.
That has been the situation since 1998 and there will be even less requirement for a constituent to visit his or her Westminster MP next year when more powers, including control over income tax, become the responsibility of the parliament in Edinburgh. Just to give one hypothetical but realistic example – it seems safe to suggest that many more Scots will complain to an MSP about their HMRC coding (Holyrood) than will do to a Westminster MP about an issue with tax on their investments or other capital gains.
So, by all means, give MSPs their extra three million quid but rather than simply dip into the public purse let’s see at least some of the money taken from MPs for whom many of the current allowances are, in reality, superfluous.
NOT A FAIR COP?
To the question of whether the police service is a career or a vocation, the probable answer is a bit of both.
Most recruits, I would imagine, are largely motivated by a desire to spend their working lives helping and protecting the public. That, mixed with the attraction of job security and the expectation of a relatively comfortable lifestyle, whether it means remaining a PC or reaching the giddy heights of chief constable.
As an incorrupt police service is essential to the maintenance of a law-abiding society, all of us have a vested interest in ensuring that the remuneration packages available to officers is sufficient to keep morale high. Even so, some of the confidence in the police must have been dented by last week’s revelations in the Scottish Daily Mail of eye-watering levels of pay and pension packages to senior officers at Police Scotland which, according to the newspaper, in some individual instances exceeded £0.5m in a single year.
Somewhat below that bar – but still handsomely rewarded – was one assistant chief constable, now becoming a regular face on BBC and STV news bulletins, who, three years ago at the age of 52, ‘retired’ from the Metropolitan Police only to be hired by Police Scotland weeks later.
True, England is made up of many local constabularies and Police Scotland is different still but as British policing works to the same principles and is funded – ultimately – by the same Treasury. So how can someone ‘retire’ from an organisation and then re-join, what is basically the same organisation, at a superior salary?
As sure as night follows day, Margaret Mitchell, the Conservative justice spokeswoman at Holyrood, declared that the sums involved were a cause for “real alarm”.
She called for “urgent answers on how these huge payments at the taxpayers’ expense are remotely justified”.
Well, easy enough words for Mrs Mitchell to say as her party is unlikely – at least anytime during the next 50 years – to be given responsibility for pulling the purse strings of the police in Scotland.
However what really makes Mrs Mitchell’s comments fatuous are other revelations, also by the Mail, of how fat cat chiefs of health authorities and universities in England are drawing huge salaries and pension payments, with little or no equation as to how these organisations perform. And that does not include other perks – such as the part-time chairwoman of one hospital foundation trust being given public money for the cost of cancelling a £5,700 safari holiday in Africa (as if she did probably not earn enough to pay for a cast-iron insurance policy that would cover every eventuality).
Is it not the case that Mrs Mitchell’s own party has been responsible for staff remuneration relating to health and higher education south of the Border for the past five and half years?
Sadly, it would appear that all established political parties who are either currently in power or have recently experienced it (which takes in the Conservatives, Liberal-Democrats, SNP and Labour), seem incapable of controlling payments to senior administrators in national and local government as well as their various arm’s-length organisations. Yes, responsible positions deserve appropriate salaries but this must be balanced by the fact that those recipients have chosen a career in public service – if their motivation was to earn megabucks they should have gone into the private sector.
Compared to the really big-ticket items, bloated levels of remuneration to public sector fat cats probably amount to a relatively small amount of total government spending.
Nevertheless there is a principle at stake in that if ruling politicians seem reluctant to tackle this issue, what hope is there of ever getting grips with the huge level of national debt, currently £1.6 trillion and rising?