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].”

Extend councillor recruitment drive, MPs urge

Here’s an article that should get some of my regular readers talking, groaning or seething, depending on their view of elected members.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
10 January, 2013 | By Kaye Wiggins

MPs have called for the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign to be extended, warning that too many elected representatives did not reflect their local communities.

The cross-party Communities and Local Government select committee praised the LGA’s campaign in a report about the role of councillors, published on Thursday. The campaign aims to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to stand as councillors, in time for the May 2013 local elections.

‘Political row over allowances claim’, see bottom of page

“The Local Government Association deserves credit for its work on the Be a Councillor programme, which is playing an important role in encouraging a wider group of people to stand at local elections”, the report said.

“We would encourage the LGA to expand the programme, under its established branding, to enable it to play a wider role in the promotion of local democracy.”

MPs said it was a “matter of concern” that “the composition of many councils does not reflect that of the communities they serve.”

“It is important to increase the proportion of women, younger people and black and minority ethnic people serving on local authorities”, they said in the report.

The MPs also criticised communities secretary Eric Pickles for his use of terms such as “guided localism” and “muscular localism”, accusing the Department for Communities & Local Government of “an inability to let go of the reins” that was “frustrating and confusing” for councillors.

“We once again urge the government to rein in its interventionist instincts”, it said.

The report also said:

The levels of councillors’ allowances “can be a deterrent to people standing for election”. Councils should be allowed to hand decisions about councillors’ allowances to independent local bodies
Councils should consider providing councillors with officer support to help them to manage their casework
The government should incentivise employers to support employees who were councillors
Councillors should not be blocked from influencing local services that were delivered by external providers
Councils should be allowed to compensate councillors for loss of earnings as part of their allowance
Most councillors were hard-working and committed – but some “do little work and, because theyrepresent safe seats, have little incentive to do more.” Councils should set up measures to deal with councilor under-performance
To read the report, click here

Political row over allowances claim
The committee’s report sparked a political row, after Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps and local government minister Brandon Lewis branded its warning that low allowances could deter would-be councillors and call for councillors to be allowed to be compensated for any loss of earnings that they suffer as a “cynical and sleazy move”. Claiming the cross-party committee’s report had come from “Labour politicians” and pointing to Labour Party rules under which a share of its councillors’ allowances are transferred to the party’s own funds, Mr Shapps said Labour was trying to increase the party’s budget. “Local taxpayers will be shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids in from Labour demands for more taxpayers’ money on councillor allowances”, he said.

Mr Lewis added: “Labour are completely out of touch with local taxpayers by calling for higher councillor allowances and defending pensions for councillors.”

However, a spokeswoman for the committee pointed out that the report’s findings and recommendations had been approved by politicians of all parties. Labour MP Clive Betts, chair of the committee, said he was “saddened by the reaction of Brandon Lewis and Grant Shapps who have stoked this negativity and undermined a serious concern of councillors from their own party”.

“Allowances remain low and act as a deterrent for many considering whether to stand for election,” he added. “This is particularly an issue for employed people and those with young families, who lose income when taking time out from work for their councillor duties. The committee therefore called for councils to have the option to have decisions about allowances to be taken out of councillors’ hands and transferred to independent local bodies.

“We also found that people are put off by shallow political point scoring, which makes the response of Mr Lewis and Mr Shapps all the more disappointing.”

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