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Councillors’ allowances

April 11th, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · No Comments · Politics

I already wrote about my strong opinions on attempts to introduce extra allowances for shadow executives on the borough council, but tonight I heard something extraordinary about the whole thing.

I'm pretty sure I'm givng away any secrets here because, although this was raised in a Labour group meeting, the details were in a letter written to a council committee.

The councillors' allowances are discussed by an independent panel who make recommendations to the council via the general purposed committee – which I love becasue it sounds like something out of an Iain M Banks book.  My natural inclination is (and was when I was a councillor) to accept what they have to say: they have no axe to grind, they study the workload of councillors, compare it to other authorities and their allowance schemes.

There is something a little distasteful (but unavoidable) about politicians setting their own pay, so getting outsiders to do it objectively always struck me as a good move. I would always advise accepting their recommendations unless there is a very good reason not to.

Tonight I heard several very good reasons not to.

For a start, the panel had a lot of trouble getting their diaries organised so they could all meet together. The way I heard it, they ended up with only two of them agreeing the final package, and that was in a phone call!  I always imagined them meeting in a Town Hall office, on the record, with Democratic Services taking notes. Two people chatting on the phone is not a good basis for allocating many thousands of pounds of my taxes.

The second reason was that the panel only formally interviewed two council members, and they were both from one opposition group.  I always thought they spoke to a range of members from different parties, with a mix of backbenchers, executives, chairs, etc.  So I don't think they were thorough enough in their research, nor was their research, in my opinion balanced.

Worst of all was a couple of details which make it look bad. I am not suggesting at all that there was any favouritism or undue influence or anything underhand at all but I really believe that anyone involved in spending public money has to look whiter than white as well as behaving that way – its why I got so upset about the party funding farrago.

The details are that the two members interviewed were the deputy chair of development control and a shadow exective member and the two main changes to allowances recommended were that shadow exectives get an allowance and the deputy chair of development control gets a larger allowance.  Even with everything above board, which I am sincerely sure it was, it just does not look good.  The litmus test is what the average person would think, and they would think it was a stich-up.

The other detail is that one of the two independent panellists involved in making the recommendation runs a charity, where one of the councillors does a lot of work. And that councillor was one of the two who were interviewed, and who holds a post where the recommendation is to pay them more. Again it just looks bad.  Councillors have very strict codes of conduct and rules about declaring interests, but it appears that independent panellists do not have that – leading to the appearance of being compromised.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I usually expect to find a cock-up rather than a conspiracy behind most bad things and I suspect that is what happened here: poor process leading to a decision which plays into the hands of the conspiracy theorists by giving them a plausible argument. The fact that I personally think it was a bad recommendation too is purely coincidental.

Fortunately the general purposes committee itself discarded the most contentious extra allowance – the shadow exective one – but I think the whole way of doing it needs looking at.  As a priority I would put it right up there with the way voluntary sector grants are apportioned.

One job on the council does deserve a special allowance: the chair of the service priority working group. It does not sound like much, but I found that just being a member of that group was harder work than chairing some committees. Although the group does not meet many times, all its meetings are over a short period of time, and between them the chair spends a lot of time going over figures with the finance people – I am assuming that whoever does it now has at least as much to do as our chair did.  I used to look at that position and be very thankful I did not have it, and yet there is no allowance for the time, energy, and responsibility involved.

Anyway, I'm sure the rows about who gets paid what will surface again at Wednesday's council meeting. I will be the fat bloke at the back of the public gallery biting his tongue.

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