The Autumn Statement is nearly always followed by a media frenzy consisting of everyone trying to work out who the winners and losers might be. Last week’s Autumn Statement was certainly no different in this respect. Among this frenzy, one thing which appears to have been largely overlooked was the announcement to accept the Pay Review Bodies report on local pay – essentially killing off any notion of the extension of regional and local pay. This is a huge win for the Welsh Liberal Democrats and a huge win for Wales too.
It is understandable why this announcement didn’t grab all the headlines. It was, after all, hidden away on page 42 of the statement. This is a u-turn that the Chancellor very much wanted to keep quiet – it’s a policy he supported. I on the other hand am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have put a brake his plans. Yes, we need to rebalance the economy, but regional or local pay certainly isn’t the answer.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats have fought tooth and nail to stop the Chancellor’s plans to extend local pay. It’s been a long campaign, but one we never wavered from. Since the very moment the Chancellor first mentioned his ill proposed plans, we have used our influence to put a stop to them. We have always believed that moves extending regional or local pay would further entrench Wales as a low-pay economy, both in the public and private sectors. More to the point, it would have resulted in men and women doing the same job in various parts of the country, receiving different rates of pay. This would have had a negative effect on Welsh workers. Ultimately, it would have meant freezing Welsh workers’ salaries for an extended period until they are the same as the local private sector pay rates. This is completely unfair and would lead to declining living standards. Times are hard enough as they are at the moment, the Chancellor’s plans would have simply just made things worse.
I can’t help but notice the actions of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in stark contrast to Welsh Labour. Of course I commend the Welsh Government on the strong resilience they have shown against the Chancellor’s plans for regional pay. But let’s be honest, it is politically a lot easier for the Welsh Government to scream and shout when their party is no longer in Government in London. It’s important we don’t forget that it was under Labour that regional pay was first introduced in to the courts system. At the time, we barely heard a whimper from Welsh Labour. Unlike Labour, the Welsh Liberal Democrats took a motion to our Party Conference calling for the party to take an anti-local and regional pay stance – something we won. We not only secured our party’s position on the matter, but we also gave our Ministers in Government a clear steer on which course to take. I am pleased that the Welsh Liberal Democrats, unlike Welsh Labour, managed to stop any further extension of regional and local pay. Last week’s announcement was something we can be very proud of.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats may have effectively killed off regional and local pay, but sadly the idea of penalising people just because they live in Wales still exists – the notion of regional benefits is still very much on the horizon. Whilst it may not be official Tory policy, David Cameron has indicated that he is considering putting the policy into his manifesto for the next general election. He’s not allowed to do it this parliament as Liberal Democrat ministers have already made clear it won’t happen on their watch.
The Tories may not have made their minds up on regional benefits just yet, but Labour certainly have – it is official Labour party policy to introduce regional benefits. Let’s be clear about this, regional benefits would be victimising people looking for work in Wales just because of where they live. It would have a detrimental effect on the poorest families in Wales. In his maiden Conference speech, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Wales failed to mention his Westminster colleagues’ policy on regional benefits even once. Unlike the Welsh Liberal Democrats, he just went with the flow content with what his party plan to do if in Government. Likewise, despite pretences of standing up for Wales, Carwyn Jones remained mute on the subject. In the Assembly he is in denial about this issue. But denial is not enough to stop it. The Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream UK party that is not willing to pander to populist right wing calls for regional benefits. I am hoping that parties of all colours in the Assembly will be willing to use any influence they have to change their party policy on this issue.