At their meeting on Tuesday the 18th of October 2011 Cambridgeshire County Council approved the recommendations of a report from an independent panel which proposed an increase in councillors basic allowances from £7,610 to £9,500, as well as increases in the additional allowances for the leader of the council and cabinet members. The leader will now get a total of £38,000 whereas previously the allowance for the role was £29,856. Each member the leader appoints to his cabinet will now get £23,750. A number of other changes, including reductions in allowances for some opposition members, and allowance cuts for those not attending meetings were also proposed and approved. The changes are to have immediate effect.
The vote was close, with thirty-three councillors voting for, twenty-nine against and one abstention. Seven councillors: five Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats were absent.
Conservative councillors P Brown, Churchill, Kadic, Orgee and Tierney voted against the rises, the meeting’s chair Cllr Powley abstained and all other Conservatives present voted for the rises. I’ve made full details of the vote available via a video I took of the voting system screen displayed at the meeting which I have posted on YouTube.
Just two councillors who are not members of the ruling Conservative group voted for the raise, these were two councillors with wards within Cambridge City, these were Ex Liberal Democrat, now independent, Cllr Harrison who represents Petersfield (an area including the city end of Mill Road) and Liberal Democrat Cllr Heathcock who represents Queen Ediths in the south of the city.
Cllr Harrison gave an impassioned speech in favour of higher allowances for councillors urging other councillors to “be brave” and vote for a rise despite public opposition. Cllr Heathcock cast his vote in favour of the allowance rise without making a speech to explain his reasoning. I think this was particularly scurrilous given the fact he was voting against the majority of his party colleagues and he should have justified his vote.
If just two councillors had switched their votes the result of the vote would have been a tie. If Cambridge councillors Harrison and Heathcock had voted the other way, or if Cllr Sarah Whitebread (Liberal Democrat, Market ward, Cambridge) who was unexplainably absent had turned up and joined one of them in voting against the end result could have been different.
Cllr Bourke was the only Liberal Democrat to speak in the debate on the allowances, he spoke for only 40 seconds or so, and said he agreed with the report but thought now was the wrong time to implement it. I think the failure of the Liberal Democrats to engage in the debate was notable as it was a free vote and they might well have been able to sway some of the conservatives, or Cllrs Harrison and Heathcock into voting against had they explained their opposition.
A number of Conservative councillors, including Cllrs Lucas, Fred Brown, Count, Palmer and West said that they would support the recommendations on the sole basis they came from an independent panel. They were trying, in my view, to distance themselves from their responsibilities. Other conservatives arguing for the increase said it was needed to ensure diversity within the council and so that those who were not rich could afford to become councillors. Cllr Criswell said he was voting for the rise to enable “the ordinary man” to become a councillor. Cllr Linda Oliver said she would support the allowance hike “for the benefit of councillors in the future”. Leader Cllr Clarke said that decent councillor allowances were needed to ensure “diversity” on the council.
Cllr P Brown who voted against the increase said now was not the time for it and proposed delaying it to 2013, he did not formally move this as an amendment though.
Cllr Shuter said it was “humiliating” to have to vote on the allowances, but he supported a raise.
Cllr Farrer said when he became a councillor he was surprised to learn councillors got expenses; but went on to vote for the allowance rise.
Cllr Palmer said councillors spend five days a week doing their jobs so the allowances were justified.
Cllr N Guyatt said a “pay increase” was needed to enable the low paid and those on benefits to become councillors.
Labour spokesperson Cllr Tariq Sadiq said: “Now is worst possible time to raise allowances”.
One of the oddest arguments came from Cllr Dutton who said councillors deserved the increase due to the work they did for local charities. He also said public workers have had “pay rises” when councillors have not. Despite supporting the rise Cllr Dutton said he’d been a councillor for 14 years before councillor allowances came in and was very happy with that.
Green councillor Sedgewick-Jell asked for transparency on how much councillors get from all sources of public money. I certainly think the total income from various public bodies should be added up and presented on each body’s website. I don’t know how far Cllr Sedgewick-Jell was proposing to go, for example if he wants to see details of benefits payments or party political jobs published.
I tweeted live from the debate, my, and others’ tweets can be read at the time of writing by searching the #cccmtgs tag.
Key Articles Elsewhere
- Article by Council Leader Nick Clarke: “Attracting and retaining elected members – and not just those that have retired from work”. 23rd September 2011.
- Cambridge Resident Phil Rodgers has written about, and visualised, the allowances vote and report of the independent panel and the independent panel’s methodology.
- The Big Allowances Debate – Cllr Steve Tierney
I think the hike in allowances will do damage to the public view of local democracy. Those councillors who voted for the rise look very out of touch with those they represent. I think Cllr Clarke ought to have shown some leadership and said that now is not the right time to be debating a councillor allowance rise while the council is cutting important services to save money.
My view is the independent panel, and those councillors who supported an increase in the allowance got it wrong.
Being a councillor isn’t a job. Those councillors who say it is a full time job, and so argue they ought be paid appropriately, are in my view doing it wrong.
Being a councillor is about setting the direction, taking decisions, overseeing and scrutinising. It’s not about, working for the council, getting involved in the details of providing the services which is what some councillors say it is when they are justifying their allowances.
It’s right in my view to make payments to councillors to cover some of their expenses. I think an allowances system is simpler, cheaper and fairer to run than reimbursing specific expenditure so I wouldn’t change that.
I would go about setting the level of the allowances quite differently from the way the panel took. I’d have started by looking at the additional costs people incur when they become councillors, running a website, phone calls, printing etc. and set an allowance level based on that.
It think it is wrong to equate the work people do as councillors with the earnings of those who are employed. The councillor allowance should not in my view be considered “pay”, or “salary”.
These are allowances on top of which travel and child care allowances can be paid; clearly they vary a lot between individuals and it makes sense to pay those on the basis of need. I would also add a new allowance to cover the costs of items disabled people need in order to fulfil the role of a councillor.
The comparison with other bodies conducted by the panel doesn’t stand up as an argument for raising the allowance in Cambridgeshire County Council. It’s not a very strong argument to say cllrs have got their snouts in the trough over there so we’ve got to get ours in over here.
Cllrs have been trousering the additional police authority allowance of £8,335 despite only attending 40-50% of their meetings there; suggesting the County Council ought not take any notice of the scandalous antics at the Police Authority is crazy.
One good thing about the proposals is cutting the allowance for those who don’t turn up. I don’t think payments per meeting are a good idea (that’s not what’s being proposed), but some kind of backstop to stop people taking the mickey is needed to safeguard public money.
The debate is a distraction; councillors have lots of other things they should be focusing their efforts on. The meeting at which the extended debate on allowances took place was one of their rare chances to question the police authority chair on Cambridgeshire’s policing strategy. The county council is taking on public health responsibilities and there is an NHS motion on the agenda too; these things ought to have been be the main debates of the day but councillors have got priorities wrong.
My County Councillor’s Response to My View
I wrote to my councillor, Paul Sales (Arbury, Labour) prior to the meeting setting out my views as I have done above. Cllr Sales responded:
Richard, Thank you for your email I think that you fail to understand the
way in which comparative re-numeration arrangements work. I will not get
into a debate with you about this. I will not support the recommendation in
any case. Please do attribute the report to me. I did not write it, I
I think I do understand what he means by “comparative re-numeration arrangements” – that’s the “they’ve got their snouts in the trough over there, we should get ours stuck in over here” argument presented in the report.
As was pointed out on Twitter when I quoted Cllr Sales’ reply what is under discussion is remuneration and not re-numeration.
I filmed the debate at full council and have selected some speeches which I think give a fair representation of the debate to place online:
- Cllr Nick Clarke Introduces the Allowances Report.
- Cllr Nick Clarke’s Main Speech During the Councillor Allowances Debate – he urged councillors not to abstain, to take a decision, and said he was supporting a rise.
- Liberal Democrat Opposition Leader Cllr Bourke on Cllr Allowances
- Conservative Councillor Shona F Johnstone Arguing for Increase in Councillor Allowances – says councillors don’t have a union to negotiate raises on their behalf.
- Cambridge’s Cllr Harrison Speaks in Favour of Rise in Councillor Allowances – she urges her fellow councillors to “be brave” and vote for the rise despite public opinion.
- Cllr Melton, Chatteris, Conservative, Explains His Support for a Rise in Cllr Allowances – he said he was being supported by his working wife.
- Conservative Cllr Steve Tierney Explains His Opposition to Higher Allowances
- Conservative Cllr Hutton Explains her Support for Higher Allowances – she says she couldn’t sign-on for benefits as a councillor and has spent all her savings to fulfil the role.
Post-Decision Radio Interview
After the vote I was interviewed again on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.
I argued that far from making being a councillor more accessible; turning the role (for cabinet members and the leader) into full time positions excludes more people; those unwilling to ditch their careers or professions and become professional politicians. I don’t think we need professional politicians in local government.
Consequences On Structure of the Council
I am concerned that the logical conclusion of the ruling Conservatives’ position will be for the leader of the council to take on the position of Chief Executive as well as has happened in Rugby, after all there is no point having two people paid full time both trying to run the council. I’d rather Cllr Clarke stuck to his role as a representative of the people and let the professional chief executive get on with the operational running of the council. The same goes for those who are cabinet members, they shouldn’t be getting involved the running of the services.
It was made clear that the allowance is not compulsory, councillors can opt not to take all or part of it. Some councillors said they would take it but were considering spending it on good causes in their local areas. I think the latter suggestion while perhaps well meaning is bizarre and we shouldn’t be distributing public money in this way.
Straight after voting themselves the allowances rise councillors lunched on loin of pork (menu); I’ve been told lunches at meetings are paid for by a compulsory deduction from the councillor allowances.