Leaders hit back in pensions row

This debate gets more and more surreal at each turn. Eric Pickles kicks things off by claiming that chief executives are surplus to requirements and that elected members should be able to fill the gap. One of his lackeys then goes on record suggesting that elected members are only volunteers and amateurs in the game of politics – ‘professional’ only applies to members of Parliament it seems.
So which is it DCLG? If it is cull the officers and plug the gap with councillors, are we to assume that this is to be done on a completely voluntary basis and for the love of it only?

I particularly like the use of the term ‘prat’ in this case and the pointed remark made to somebody I know well, ‘He’s one of your prats’.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
11 January, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Council leaders from across the political spectrum have criticised ministerial attacks on councillors remuneration and may launch a legal challenge against plans to restrict access to the local government pension scheme.

The judicial review is being considered by Labour leaders while their Conservative counterparts said had they met ministers no fewer than four times in the past 48 hours to discuss proposed pension changes.

Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democratic and Independent leaders at yesterday’s meeting of the LGA executive were particularly critical of ministers’ language. Local government minister Brandon Lewis, who has proposed closing the Local Government Pension Scheme to councillors, said elected members should see themselves as volunteers rather than professional politicians.

Mr Lewis’ comments, made before Christmas, has already led one leader to accuse ministers of treating councillors with “contempt”. The issue was also raised by Conservative leaders when they met with Mr Lewis on Thursday morning.

On that same day, during an appearance on the BBC’s Today programme, Conservative Party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps added fuel to the fire and widened the row by questioning allowances for “volunteer” councillors and likened them to “scout leaders”.

At a meeting of the LGA’s executive on Thursday, LGA Labour group leader David Sparks said it was “extremely important that we do not just roll over on this [pension] issue” and suggested a legal challenge could be made against the proposal.

He called for LGA officials to compile a report on councillor pensions as well as those of other elected members such as MPs and Greater London Assembly members. “I am expecting that the report we get in February will look seriously at the whole issue of judicial review,” Mr Sparks added.

‘Prat’

Leaders from all parties expressed frustration and some anger at ministers’ comments, although there was widespread laughter when Cllr Sparks described listening to Mr Shapps on the radio that morning as “like driving up the motorway and seeing one of those kids in a car who continually sticks his tongue out…[and] you think one of these days you’re going to grow up and be an even bigger prat”.

Turning to LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) and LGA Conservative group leader Gary Porter, he added: “He’s one of your prats and you really have to do something about him.”

Cllr Porter declined to comment on Cllr Sparks’ analogy but he criticised the “language around the debate” and called for ministers to take a more mature approach. “If there is a genuine need to revisit [the pension arrangement] on financial grounds they could do that in a mature, adult way,” he said.

Describing the proposal as “a stupid idea being carried out in a stupid way”, he said he and other Conservative leaders had already seen Mr Lewis and discussed the pension proposal twice on Wednesday and would raise it again in a further two meetings with the minister on Thursday.

Making the argument for councillor pensions and allowances, Sir Merrick said reducing remuneration would adversely affect councillor diversity. “The idea that only certain people of a certain background with a certain financial security can stand to be a councillor is highly objectionable.” He added: “I hope that our representations, particular those made in private earlier today [to Brandon Lewis], will be heard.”

Leaders and elected mayors at the meeting also questioned the distinction made by Mr Lewis between elected mayors, who are judged to work full time and therefore should be eligible for a pension, and leaders, who are not.

‘Hypocrites’

Peter Box (Lab), leader of Wakefield MBC, added: “As an executive leader I am responsible for a multi-million pound business and to say you can do that on some part-time basis is detached from reality.” The truth was councillors passed up career opportunities to be elected members, he said, unlike “many MPs who seem to have two jobs, and Grant Shapps is one, they have got that much time on their hands”.

Accusing ministers of “hypocrisy”, Cllr Box was one of many to make a comparison with MPs pensions and salaries just hours before publication of a survey of MPs showed they felt their salaries should increase by 33%.

Mr Lewis’ criticism of councillor pensions combined with Mr Shapps’ comments on allowances led Hackney LBC elected mayor Jules Pipes (Lab) to question their wider attitude to local government. Shapps’ and Lewis’ comments indicated the government thought councils “with £1bn-plus turnover can be run by an occasional few evening meetings”, he said. This image was “a world away” from the present day when there were “issues of performance that we are held directly accountable for in a way we weren’t 10 or 20 years ago”.

LGA Independent leader Marianne Overton described the government’s attitude as “an attack on the value of democratic representation” while Chris White (Lib Dem), leader of Hertfordshire CC, warned the pension proposal was “the beginning of an attack and the attack will be on allowances in general”.

He also warned that councillors arguing for pensions would be “a tabloid story. Grant Shapps and others will be absolutely delighted if we make a fuss because that is just writing copy for the Daily Mail”. However, he added, “that does not mean we shouldn’t [make a fuss].”

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