Cambridge City Councillors Jostle to Get Snouts in Trough


Friday, April 8th, 2011. 4:42pm


Cambridge City Council's Mayor and Deputy Mayor Process into the Council Chamber

Cambridge City Council’s Mayor and Deputy Mayor Process into the Council Chamber Before the Councillor Allowances Debate

On the 7th of April I observed a Cambridge City Council meeting. Despite many important items being on the agenda, including the future of the NHS and setting the city wide police priorities the item to which most time was devoted was councillor allowances. The minor changes being proposed to the expenses and allowances scheme for councillors produced more speeches, more passion, and more raised voices than anything else which was before the council. The debate lasted the best part of an hour.

Councillors have budgeted £263,880 to spend on their allowances in 2011/12; they have also approved a scheme which allows them to claim expenses on top of their allowances.

Liberal Democrat policy was stated to be: No cuts to councillor allowances, unless their responsibilities have changed.

To their credit a couple of councillors did express their exasperation at their fellow councillor’s behaviour. Cllr Marchant Daisley tweeted during the debate to say:

Too long on members allowances @camcitco #fullcouncil

and

FGS! Is there no conception of the total irrelevance of this issue to those who elected us?

Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor Neil McGovern responded, apparently agreeing with Cllr Daisley but perhaps also indicating a keenness to get his teeth into the taxpayer funded sandwiches :

@GailMDaisley Yup. Can we take a break soon? The allowances are some of the lowest in comparison to other districts anyway.

Cllr Benstead, speaking in the chamber, rather than via Twitter, warned his fellow councillors that if they carried on the way they were going the debate would be reported with the headline: “Councillors Jostle to Get Snouts in Trough”.

The Main Proposal Debated

The council’s independent renumeration panel had made a proposal:

That ungrouped councillors be paid a special responsibility allowance equivalent to one fifth of the basic allowance to reflect organisational requirements, correspondence and administrative costs.

The amount of money in question was £640 per councillor. At the moment Cllr Hipkin is the only ungrouped councillor on the council; though when Cllr Howell was present as the lone Conservative he too would have been eligible had the scheme been in-place then.

This had been approved by the council’s civic affairs committee; however the council was told that the Liberal Democrat members on that committee were split on the matter.
Many decisions about running the city are effectively taken by the Liberal Democrats in secret group meetings and not in public. It appeared that the Liberal Democrats had in private decided to scrap the payment for ungrouped councillors between the civic affairs committee and the full council.

Independent councillor, John Hipkin, accused the Liberal Democrats of making a personal attack against him and attempting to “embarrass” and “diminish” him. He said their decision not to give a special responsibility allowance to un-grouped councillors would be seen by the public as “petty and vindictive”. I thought this was an over-reaction to what was being done.

Liberal Democrats Saunders and Swanson rebelled against their party whip and refused to vote for their party’s proposals, though they did not offer any amendment themselves, or make any contribution to the debate, so we do not know what they would have preferred.

Points of Principle Discussed

  • Who should set councillor allowances? Labour said the Independent Renumeration Panel should set the rates, and that the Liberal Democrats were wrong to, yet again, over-rule them. Liberal Democrat Cllr Boyce dismissed the panel’s proposals as nonsense, saying they clearly had no idea of what councillors actually did and said they’d approve the panel’s recommendations if they came up with something sensible.
  • Labour complained that there was too much weighting towards executive councillors, with them getting by far the greatest share of the funds allocated.

Allowances or Pay

Cllr Rosensteil made a speech saying that he saw the allowances as recompense for working councillors who lost earnings as a result of carrying out council duties during the day.

Cllr Boyce said he saw the allowances as being payment for work councillors carried out “for the council” as opposed to as representatives.

All councillors appeared to support the idea that there was a some connection between the allowances and “pay”, with councillors and reports to the meeting, mentioning the “minimum wage” and calculating how many hours various allowances would equate to if paid at the minimum wage.

My View

Councillor allowances are simpler and cheaper to administer than an overly complex expenses scheme. Being a councillor does cost money and to make the role accessible to all I think it is right that there is some support. A fairly flat rate of allowances, with some extra allowed expenses for things like child care and travel plus a cup of tea and a sandwich at the occasional long meeting at the Guildhall is I think reasonable. That would allow councillors to buy and maintain some decent IT kit, a computer and printer, cover extra phone calls.

The aim of the allowances scheme shouldn’t be to recompense people for lost earnings, or the value of their evenings lost to the council chamber, or in committee meetings. People aren’t becoming councillors for the money. I do wonder why all the largely silent backbench Liberal Democrats are there, but many councillors are clearly in the role because they have ideas for running the city better which they want to try and get put into action. The reward isn’t monetary, it’s seeing individuals benefit and the city and the country change, ideally for the better, as a result of the decisions taken. Being a councillor is a role, a position, a vocation, not a job.

I think the payments, for the leader of the council of around £14K /year and other executive members of £11.5K / year are far too high; and agree with the Labour, Green and Independent members that there should be more fairness and the distribution ought be more equitable. I don’t know what work the members of the executive consider they do “on behalf of the council” rather than as elected representatives, but I don’t think they should be doing it.

I’m quite concerned by the new payments (hourly wages!) for co-optees, presumably the likes of the tenant reps on the housing management board, and perhaps even members of the independent renumeration committee, I can’t see how these are justified at all. Surely people volunteering for these roles have some kind of desire to serve the public interest and don’t need to be paid to do so. I don’t know how long these have been in place, but I came across them for the first time while reading the papers for last night’s meeting.

The Independent Renumeration Panel

The members of the panel slated by Cllr Boyce for coming up with nonsense and over-ruled by the full council were:

  • Mr Michael Arnold – Retired. Lifelong resident of City. Financial background, most recently working for a biopharmaceutical company. Community Governor for Castle School. Volunteer Rowing Coach who looks after the schools section of a local rowing club.
  • Mr Graham Humby – Qualified Barrister and Solicitor. Currently a Law Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. LEA School Governor. Member of the Courts Board for Cambridgeshire.
  • Mr Geoffrey Kirkness – English degree from Cambridge University. Works for local company that looks at data provision for access by the public sector.
  • Mr Tobias Paul – Presently an undergraduate reading law at Robinson College. Other voluntary commitments include work for the Scottish Government advising on alcohol policy and various collegiate and university-based secretarial posts.

The panel heard from councillors; according to the report to the meeting one of the things councillors reported to them was that they are doing less work now than they used to. They used to say they spent 12 hours a week on typical ward councillor work, but now they only spend 7.

Expenses

Some of the expenses claims made by councillors in 2009/10:

  • Cllr Dixon made claims of 40p and 60p for public transport. Those were his only non-milage claims for the year.
  • Cllrs Taylor and Hipkin each billed the taxpayer £2.57 for use of their bikes in 2009/10
  • Cllr Cantrill made a £54.75 expenses claim in relation to public transport.
  • Cllr Blair claimed £232.07 for use of her car.

The Liberal Democrats have refused calls, mainly by Labour’s Cllr Dryden, to proactively publish more details so the public can see the basis on which these claims are made. Cllr Dryden claimed £322.79 in relation to his 2009-10 motoring; he wants that figure to be presented along with details of where meetings were held (eg. if they were out of the city such as joint meetings with other authorities, and what time of day they were held – indicating the likely availability of public transport).

It appears to me that some of the claims are for trivial amounts, and councillors cannot have considered the costs to the public of administering their claims. I would suggest a minimum level below which specific claims would not be permitted. (Costs below the minimum could be considered covered by the allowance).

Councillors get free unmetered use of a hot drinks vending machine (which I think is fine – I’m not calling for publication of a statement of how many cups of tea are consumed by each councillor) though I think councillors’ use of free passes to the city’s car parks should be released in greater detail.

Funding Political Parties

Cllr Boyce said party political activity should not be paid for by the public purse (They’re apparently all unaware of Short Money). Cllr Hipkin said that when he was a Liberal Democrat the party had charged a levy on the allowances which went into, among other things, paying for a party political press officer. He asked if this still happened.
Cllr Boyce said that allowances weren’t paid in relation to party political work but what people did with them once they had them was up to them.

14 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Councillors Jostle to Get Snouts in Trough

  1. Rupert MOss-Eccardt

    It is clear to me that I am much worse off than if I hadn’t been a Councillor. Some of that is directly lost earnings for taking unpaid leave and some is lost earnings for losing a job as the Chief Exec was concerned I would tell myself things. Less tangible is the effect on the career. There have been times when I’ve had to choose to spend time on casework rather than the extra bit of work or personal development. Even less obvious but still also something I believe happens is that, because people don’t understand the part-time nature of being a councillor I’ve misedd shortlists. Also people are concerned about overt politics interfering with the business. I get the feeling that self-employment and the public sector are still the two main employers of councillors who are employed.

    OTOH being a councillor has been rewarding and worth it.

    Now, on to another topic. How much allowance should the Police Commissioner get?

  2. Martin

    I think the amount of complaint that we see in the media about Councillors’ allowances is overblown. Most Councillors I know work hard and their time should be recompensed suitably.

    We don’t want the situation where only those with very flexible employers or those with high-paying jobs are able to be councillors. Instead, we need a cross-section of people in the community, whatever type of job they may be in.

  3. rn

    I think that all politicians, european, national, council and otherwise, would benefit from the scheme forced upon students. Namely that the expectation of increased future earnings ought to be funded from a loan scheme similar to the Student Loans Company. Increased financial rigour in the public sector, a greatly increased calibre of public servants and a general reduction of the burden on the taxpayer would be an inevitable result. No pay. Curtailed allowances. A publicly accountable loan system and repayments forcibly deducted from future earnings. It’d be a brave councillor who opposed such a system in this particular city with elections due in term time.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    I agree the main aim of the allowances should be to ensure anyone can afford to become an effective councillor regardless of their personal wealth.

    I also agree there’s far too much attention given to councillor allowances. I realise I’m adding to that by writing this article, but I’m mainly simply reporting that our councillors spent so long on an impassioned debate on the subject.

    I think Rupert Moss-Eccardt makes lots of good points. There is a lot of mis-understanding of what councillors do. My view is that Cambridge councillors aren’t helping this by equating allowances with pay. Generally awareness of how the country is run is very low, this includes among younger people despite around a decade of citizenship education in schools.

    I think we have a big problem in the country were many people are unable to express their views due to fear of losing their jobs, or their working lives being affected. We should have more protection for freedom of political expression.

    Those pursing a belief in the rule of law, democracy and openness don’t benefit from the same protections which apply to those who have religious beliefs for example.

    Read Moss-Eccardt’s comment substituting “councillor” for say “muslim” and “casework/politics” for “religion” and there would be uproar if what he is describing was happening.

    People make lots of different decisions about how they want to live their lives and how they can achieve what they want. There are always balances to be made. Career vs being a councillor, isn’t really much different than the conflicts others face between say earning money and volunteering, or time spent working vs time spent with family.

  5. rn

    Interesting comments Richard, but is fair to point out that those pursuing religious or other beliefs, do not do so at public expense. Councillors do receive taxpayers money and should therefore be held to greater scrutiny. It is for employers to decide whether the pursuit of political glory by employees is antipathetic to the interests of the business concerned. It is interesting that the two areas of employment mentioned by RME are self-employment (where any loss in performance owing to the individual’s political ambitions are purely a matter for the individual) and the public sector – where potential loss of performance should be a matter of concern to all taxpayers. Perhaps if the council had fewer moonlighting public sector decision makers and more entrepreneurs we might have a more accountable and effective body politic. Perhaps you should reserve some of your “uproar” for the public sector employers who show less judgement over the activities of their employees than the employers mentioned above.

  6. Edward

    rn – note the average age of a councillor. Cambridge is mostly drawing its new recruits from those in their forties or fifties and some of those have taken early retirement. It’s not terribly different anywhere else. You won’t get very much from their future earnings, so I don’t think such a scheme would work.

    Whilst Richard’s right that lots of people do face conflicts between earning and other duties, you don’t want to discourage candidates who can’t afford to take the financial hit. Councillors ought to be broadly representative of their constituents socially and I’m not sure most Cambridge residents could afford to work for ten or fifteen hours less a week.

  7. mikecolindale

    As an employer I’d be very wary of giving a job to any local councillor. I can’t imagine a cv reading “In charge of the City of Cambridge 2000-2010″ would be attractive to any employer outside of the public sector or other refuges of the loony left.

  8. Andrew Bower

    Mike, is that without regard to what private sector employment they had concurrently with the preceding period of their service and their performance therein? Not for nothing is it said that if you want something done you should give it to a busy man!

  9. Adam Pogonowski

    Richard,

    Good points raised – especially re. the Executive getting far too much. Some may do more work than the average councillor, but to use that as justification just isn’t correct, for in some cases, they do just as much as opposition members.

    A clarification – it was Cllr. Smith who didn’t vote for the scheme (arriving late she claimed, though I suspect she thinks it’s also an illogical system too). So Saunders and Smith abstained.

    The system I find perversely illogical. Lib Dems Chair and Vice Chair all committees, and grant themselves big allowances for so doing. The extra workload involved (for this is how they justify it), I’d contend is negligible.

    Moreover, Lib Dems always harp on about the regulatory, and non-party political nature of Licensing and Planning – which presumably therefore also equates to more equal workloads on such committees too. Yet they distinguish between the Labour spokesperson, and Green spokesperson with a four-times allowance difference. I can see no logic to that, and neither could Cllr. McPherson (Labour) who is the Licensing Spokes. I did ask the Liberals why this was on the night, but as always, got no answer. Undoubtedly, they will claim it’s based on “number of group members overall” – which may be true. But if it is so, this would contradict their claim therefore that such allowances are based on the “higher than usual workload” involved – a notion I consider to be utter tripe in any event.

    A more equal allowance structure, and the scrapping of some pointless allowances too (especially for bike and car mileage (which surely is aptly covered in the basic allowance)) would be far better. What’s more, it may encourage more young people, with innovative ideas and ways of approaching things, into the Council. Money is not a driver for me, or most other Cllrs I know, but to be recompensed for paper, printing etc costs, is, as people have pointed out, fair. And also, it makes up (but only to a small extent) for the loss of pursuing a highly paid career path (which most people in society are so minded to pursue).

    Cllr. Boyce noted that he had to reject the IRP’s allowance recommendations because they were not explained or something, and that we were stuck with the illogical old system. What struck me as particularly galling in relation to that remark, was if the system is rubbish, why are the Lib Dems not proposing a more logical, evidence based approach. They are always bleeting about the need for evidence-based approaches to things, and logic and fairness, yet seem not to practice what they bleet about in this matter.

    Cutting the overall allowance budget is what is needed, and a fairer distribution amongst all members of the Council, to encourage competent people to join and help run Cambridge in an excellent manner.

  10. Richard Taylor Article author

    In terms of the voting, there was a recorded vote, so details should appear in the minutes. I thought Cllr Smith abstained on the amendment on the grounds that she arrived late, and had therefore not heard Cllr Hipkin’s speech arguing against the changes; I think she also explained she felt she had some degree of a conflict of interest as she described Cllr Hipkin as a friend. I thought Cllr Smith did though then go on to support her party’s proposals once the amendment had been made by her colleagues.

    Recording votes is difficult from the public gallery, especially when councillors don’t put their hands up clearly or don’t clearly state for/against. One reason I think photography / recording ought be allowed as a matter of course is to allow the recording of votes by those are interested. In this context such recording would be a simple aid to those reporting on the council’s activities.

  11. Adam Pogonowski

    What I found weird was that there were 18 Lib Dems supporting it before recording, then 19 supporting it post-recording – perhaps a miscount by officials, but maybe someone changing their mind?

  12. rn

    Re : Edward’s comments. If, as you assert, the average age of new councillors is in their 40/50′s and a significant proportion have taken early retirement, then they ought to be exactly the kind of people who could afford the kind of loan scheme I’m proposing. After all, retirement in one’s forties is a nice pipe-dream for the vast majority of the electorate, whatever their job. That the lucky ones who can afford this lifestyle then expect compensation above-and-beyond the fripperies of public office seems to me symptomatic of the current disfunction of local politics.

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