There's been a strong reaction from union leaders here in Wales to a call from Plaid Cymru to transfer the pay and conditions of public sector workers in the areas for which the Welsh Government is responsible, for example the NHS and education.
At the moment most pay rates are set at the same UK-wide levels but the UK Government is making moves toward introducing regional pay levels to close the gap between what the public and private sectors pay in different areas. The Treasury reckons that in Wales that gap could be particularly large with public sector employees here earning up to 18% more than those working in the private sector.
Plaid Cymru is holding a debate in the Assembly based on a motion describing the plans as 'unjust for workers' and 'damaging to the Welsh economy.' The Labour Welsh Government is expected to support that motion.
But Plaid is going further and that's where it loses the support of Labour and the trades unions.
It's calling for pay and conditions of public sector workers to be transferred so that the Welsh Government can decide whether or not to reduce or raise the pay rates of nurses, doctors, teachers and others employed in those areas which are devolved.
Plaid's Jocelyn Davies AM says,
Regional pay, which was first introduced by Labour in Westminster and is now being continued by the Tory Lib Dem coalition, is a policy that Plaid Cymru has always opposed. We want to see public sector pay and conditions protected and that is why we want to see them devolved – so that it is a Welsh government, directly accountable to the people of Wales that is responsible for making the decisions
The Welsh Government doesn't want this which may seem strange at first sight. It decides how everything else is spent in areas such as health, education, transport; why would it want to leave the power to decide how much it pays those working in those areas with ministers in London? The answer lies in what a Welsh Government spokesman told me:
This proposal doesn't take into account those large numbers of people in Wales who work for UK Government departments such as the DVLA and the Department of Works and Pensions.
"The proposal would also forget about other people in the UK - those who are similarly affected by regional pay and who also deserve our support.
'NAIVE AND PREMATURE'
Labour still believes there is a need to fight the introduction of regional pay completely. And that's a point further clarified by union leaders in Wales. The man who called Plaid's proposal 'naive and premature' is Martin Mansfield, General Secretary of the Wales TUC.
Unions in Wales overwhelmingly support UK-wide pay bargaining and strongly oppose UK Government plans to introduce regional pay which would entrench pay inequality right across the country, drive down wages in poorer areas, cause more business closures and reinforce the UK’s alarming reliance on London and the South East for growth.
While Wales-wide bargaining would be preferable to school or hospital level bargaining, we still believe we need to convince the UK Government to maintain existing pay bargaining arrangements; not break them-up. Calling for the immediate implementation of Wales-level pay bargaining doesn’t oppose regional pay, it brings it forward.
Plaid politicians and supporters see this as proof of Labour's refusal to seek a Wales solution to a potential UK problem.
But Plaid is being accused of hypocrisy too. Observers - and a number of amendments to today's Assembly motion - point out that if Wales were independent, ALL pay rates would be set by the Welsh Government achieving, in effect, exactly the same end as regional pay.
There are three other matters to do with regional pay which will affect the debate here in Wales.
The first is, what will the Welsh Government do with its own employees?
Individual UK Government departments will be given the option to move towards regional pay levels if they want when current pay freezes end over the next couple of years.
It's been repeatedly made clear, most notably by Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, that the Welsh Government will be treated as a UK Government department in this case and given the same option to set pay levels for the 5,127 people it employs directly. *
But it's not clear what the Welsh Government will do in that eventuality. In last week's Sharp End, Finance minister Jane Hutt refused to say whether or not Labour would link the pay of civil servants here with those in, say, the South East of England.
An even trickier second question is what would happen if, say the UK Department of Health or Education, introduced regional pay levels for nurses or teachers in Wales. Would the Welsh Government then be obliged to recognise those levels or push for the responsibility to be devolved?
MIND THE GAP
And a third question is exactly how big is the pay gap between the public and private sectors here in Wales?
In and around last week's UK Budget, the figure of 18% was bandied about by politicians and commentators. But that estimate used by the Treasury is based on this report by the Cabinet office which in turn draws from estimates made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in this report which in turn uses figures from the Office for National Statistics here. Now I'm no statistician but I can't see what basis of private sector pay for Wales any of these use to arrive at 18%. If you can, let me know.
The best clue came this week in a report by the jobs search website Adzuna. It analysed 500,000 job ads from across the UK and found that private sector pay here in Wales is 9% lower than the UK average.
If the private sector starting point is that much lower, how does that affect the size of the gap with the public sector?
There'll be an intense debate in the Assembly today, but you can only expect it to intensify in the coming months.
- UPDATE 1605pm
I've now had more details of the number of people directly employed by the Welsh Government.
A spokesman tells me that in the latest published accounts (2010-11) the total was 5,764 staff at a cost of £254 million.
The figure I quoted above is the most recent number from a headcount on 29 February 2012 which identified 5,396 people, or 5,127 full time equivalents.