On the 27th of February 2012 I attended a public meeting called by Cambridgeshire County Council’s Independent Remuneration Panel and held in Cambridge.
The panel is charged with recommending the level of expenses and allowances which councillors ought receive from the council. Councillors will ultimately decide their own expenses and allowances scheme at a full council meeting to be held at the end of March.
Only around seven or so members of the public attended the event, we were comfortably outnumbered by others present who included the panel members, council officers, reporters, members of the council’s standards committee and a couple of councillors.
Interestingly, and surprisingly, there appeared to be support from the panel, members of the public, and the standards committee chairman, for a suggestion I made that the panel ought place the responsibility for assessing the impact some factors should have on the level of councillor allowances on councillors.
Factors more appropriate for councillors, rather than the panel, to adjudicate on could include consideration of the “current financial situation”, the pay of council employees, as well as the public perception of councillors, the council, and local democracy. The panel said they were actively considering leaving considering leaving these matters for councillors to bring in, and weigh up, during their debate prior to deciding on their expenses and allowances scheme.
If adopted by the panel this approach would scupper the stance taken by many councillors during the last debate on councillor allowances of seeking to wash their hands of the issue, saying they would vote for the recommendations of the panel, whatever they were.
Another interesting point was a few members of the public, including me, expressing support for not recognising, and supporting, political parties through the expenses and allowances system. A panel member stated the law prevents them from scrapping the opposition group leader’s special responsibility allowance completely, but noted they are free to set its level.
The meeting kicked off with David Sales, the chairman of the panel, explaining his role and introducing the other panel members.
A council officer then gave a brief overview of the scale and scope of the council’s operations and the role of councillors. The meeting was told the council currently spends £762,000 per year on councillor expenses and allowances.
Mr Sales then sought to direct discussion to consider a set of specific questions. The first question was on the subject of diversity among councillors, the second on the level of the basic allowance, the third on the special responsibility allowances and finally on how, if at all, the “current economic climate” ought impact the levels of expenses and allowances.
The first public speaker rejected Mr Sales’ attempt to direct public comments; and asked about how the panel had been appointed, noting did not appear particularly representative of the people of Cambridgeshire. Mr Sales said invitations to apply had been sent out by the council, and he thought that was mechanism by which appointments had been made. A member of the standards committee brandished a newspaper advert, claiming that this showed an effort had been made to encourage applicants from a wider group. This member of the standards committee said that had people such as postmen and teachers applied they could have been selected.
The meeting was told that the deadline for public responses to the panel’s consultation is the end of February 2012, despite the council’s website stating:
The public consultation runs from 14th to 27th February.
Panel member Robert Smith said that 200 public submissions had been received as of a week before the consultation deadline, and those had included lots of “adverse comments”.
Following the meeting I sent the following to the panel:
Following the independent panel’s invitation to the public to submit their views, I would like to make the following suggestions:
- I would like to suggest the panel publishes all material it uses to base its decisions on, deliberates in public, and publishes the minutes of its deliberations.
[I didn't have the opportunity to make this suggestion at the public meeting, hence moved it to the top of my written submission]
- All public funds going to councillors ought be proactively published. In addition to the council’s own expenses, allowances, and benefits, this should also, at a minimum, include expenses from bodies the council appoints members to, and expenses and allowances from other councils and public bodies.
I realise it would be easy for the panel to dismiss this suggestion as “out of scope” but I urge them to be bold and include it. Such transparency is needed in my view to give confidence in local democracy.
Currently it appears to me that appointments to bodies such are the Fire and Police Authorities appear to be made primarily to give a bonus allowance to a councillor.
[I raised this suggestion during the public meeting and a council officer vigorously argued against it, arguing all the information was already publicly available. I don't think all public bodies do proactively publish all the relevant information, and in any case, I think the information ought be collated and made more easily accessible. ]
- In my view councillor allowances are not payment for doing a job. I think the panel’s questionnaire [and some of the chair's comments at the public meeting] suggests it has already made the assumption they are and I think this ought be revisited. Any councillors who see their roles as a job are in my view doing it wrong. Even cabinet members are present as elected representatives, it is not their role to actually run services.
[Panel chair Mr Sales responded to this point during the public meeting noting that Cambridgeshire has a good record for being a councillor, rather than officer led, council, and suggested that it would be possible to spend five days a week on roles appropriate for a councillor, such as strategy and oversight]
Councillor allowances ought be in lieu of a wider expenses scheme. I think it would be undesirable to have a scheme allowing councillors to claim for postage, phone calls, websites, and stationery on the grounds such a scheme would be expensive to administer both in terms of councillors’ time and costs for the council. I also think some councillors might be deterred from putting in claims. Therefore I support an allowances scheme in lieu of such an expenses scheme; this is all an allowances scheme ought aim to be, I don’t think it ought go any further than that.
I think the panel ought ask councillors how much they spend on material directly related to their duties and use that as a basis for setting the allowance level.
I think it would be right to retain expenses for travel related costs. This is particularly important for those representing areas outside of Cambridge. When councillors travel on for legitimate reasons related to their role they ought be reimbursed for their costs.
[At the meeting I argued that making being a councillor a job, expected to take a couple of days a week, or even a five day week full time as a cabinet member, would be a greater deterrent to taking on such a role for many people than purely financial considerations. I argued against creating a class of professional councillors, and suggested that keeping being a councillor a part time role made it more accessible to a wider group of people.]
- I think the panel ought be cautious about including an attendance element in the allowance, due to the potential for damage to the council’s reputation eg. through calculations about how much an individual is paid per meeting, or even per minute, for those who attend part of a meeting.
If attendance was included in the scheme I would like to see attendance at local police priority setting meetings included (eg. Cambridge’s Area committees).
I suggest any attendance aspect ought be a backstop aimed at stopping, or reducing, the allowances of councillors failing to turn up to a substantial fraction of meetings.
- I would like the panel to be clear in its report what, if any, aspects of the scheme ought be up to councillors. For example, will the panel consider the impact of the scheme on the reputation of the council and of local democracy? If not, I think such matters ought be flagged up as items the panel think the councillors ought debate when they come to approve, or not, the recommendations.
A number of councillors appear to wish to wash their hands of the whole allowances debate, and have stated they will approve whatever the panel recommends. I do not think the panel ought aid councillors who seek to do this, it is the councillors who are responsible for the allowances scheme they set and the panel’s report should make this clear.
[I was surprised at the degree of support from the panel, and others, this received at the public meeting, I expected to be a lone voice with this suggestion.]
- I note the panel appears to be made up of members of the rich elite. There do not appear to be any members who will potentially be in the position of working hard all year in jobs which pay far less than some councillors are likely to get in taxpayer funded allowances. I urge the panel to consider how those who will be working hard to generate the funds to pay these allowances will feel about them.
- I do not think party politics ought be specifically supported via the expenses and allowances scheme. I would like payments to group leaders, and their deputies etc., to be minimised.
The motivation for my comments is a desire to preserve, promote and strengthen our local democracy.