For what they’re worth

HOW much should deputies be paid?

(Picture by Montri Thipsorn/Shutterstock)
(Picture by Montri Thipsorn/Shutterstock)

It is a tricky question and one which raises public hackles. Recently the current States got grief in some quarters for simply saying ‘this is not the time to tinker with our pay, let’s just keep the old formula in place’. It is an issue on which deputies simply can’t win.

On one hand, we do not want people to stand for election whose main motivation is just to pocket a good salary for four years. Or maybe longer if it turns into a ‘political career’. Rather, candidates should be driven solely by a genuine desire to make the island a better place to live. Even if what constitutes ‘better’ is open to debate.

On the other hand, neither do we want to prevent talented people, with the right motivation, from entering the States simply because they can’t afford to. This usually applies to younger potential candidates, with children and mortgages.

I can well remember that the States that I entered 38 years ago was full of very decent people, but they were largely either retired, business owners or independently wealthy. Certainly the age profile was far older than today’s assembly. The States of those days were worthy and well-meaning but hardly representative.

The trouble is that there is a crossover. The same pay level will, at the same time, be far too low to encourage really talented people, with a career and a family to support, to consider entering the States, yet high enough to prompt others to think ‘that is not a bad little earner’.

Certainly, I have served with many deputies who could have made far more working in other fields, where they would also have received much less grief. I have also served with several who would not have stood a chance of commanding a similar salary outside of the States.

So what is the sweet spot? Where should we pitch deputies’ pay?

I’ll have a go at answering that in a minute but firstly let’s look back to yesteryear.

Some talk nostalgically of the good old days, when being a States member was entirely voluntary. Things were apparently better back then and the quality of politicians far higher. Strange, because thinking back nearly 40 years, I can remember there always being a real mixture of members, with a few superstars and a few dunderheads, and most members lying on a spectrum in between. In other words, very much like more modern and better paid assemblies.

So I certainly don’t buy the argument, which I have heard many times over the years, that paying more tends to attract a better quality of deputies/candidates. In fact, if I hear the tired old cliche of ‘if you pay peanuts then you will attract monkeys’ one more time I will scream. But neither do I accept the premise that the assemblies before deputies’ pay was increased were head and shoulders above today’s States. That is just looking back via a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

Actually, although I’m sure there was a time when States members were unpaid, it must have been a very long time ago. When I was elected in March 1982, a deputy’s (admittedly means tested) allowance was £5,000 a year. That sounds pretty paltry in today’s world, but the reflated figure today would be about £20,000. Not impressive compared with modern pay rates but very far from ‘unpaid’.

These days the basic pay of a deputy is nearly twice what it was back then. So has it all gone too far? Personally, I think it has in respect to the flat rate paid to all deputies, no matter what responsibilities they have.

In fact, I would support a far lower ‘starting rate’ for deputies with no committee responsibility. Perhaps somewhere around £25K.

I know all the counter arguments: ‘Committee work is only part of a deputy’s role’; ‘It may not be the deputy’s fault that they have no committees and their cost of living is no lower as a result’; ‘How can prospective candidates decide whether to stand for election if they don’t know how much they will be paid?’

Valid points but at the end of the day in most other trades a person’s salary tends to be determined by their job size and level of responsibility, so why should politics be any different?

On top of this low basic salary, I would then pay responsibility allowances for committee memberships and larger ones for committee presidencies. That way those with the more onerous roles would be paid more. It just seems fairer to me and would discourage members from ‘cruising’ while properly rewarding those with the toughest jobs.

What I would definitely not do is go back to the ludicrous system, used for a while, of paying so much per meeting. All that did was encourage a meeting culture.

Oh, and I would bring back States members’ pensions. Not by expecting the taxpayer to stump up any more, but by diverting some of the cash currently being used to pay deputies’ salaries into pension contributions instead. Frankly, it is hypocritical to lecture the rest of the community to make proper provision for their old age and not to lead by example.

I suppose what matters to most taxpayers is the total cost of government. I would like it to come down but not in the way proposed by the latest independent panel. Not only was their proposed saving minimal, but it actually involved an increase in the basic pay of deputies to above £40K. Decreasing that basic pay considerably would both save more and be far fairer.

Finally, there is another way of reducing the cost of government, which I support but few of my colleagues do. I still think we probably have too many deputies. When I first entered politics we had 55, largely spare time, States members and that was fine. Today we have 38 quasi-full-time deputies and that is over-government for a community of 63,000. Thirty deputies and one Alderney Representative would be far better and more cost-effective.

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