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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Leaders blast Lewis over councillor pensions

Pensions for elected members or not is not the issue here. The barefaced arrogance of this 5 year politician is. He has no qualification to be in his job, other than success at the ballot box, just like elected councillors. Yet he is telling those councillors, with exactly qualification as an MP, they have no right to

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

7 January, 2013 | By Mark Smulian

Most council leaders have rejected government plans to ban councillors from joining the Local Government Pension Scheme, an exclusive LGC survey indicates.

More than half of 105 respondents said they disagreed with the proposal, our poll reveals. Local government minister Brandon Lewis suggested councillors should be stripped of the right to join the scheme in a consultation paper last month.

The idea has already met with strong opposition from prominent Conservative councillors. And LGC’s survey found that 53.3% of leaders thought councillors should remain eligible for scheme membership.

Respondents were particularly annoyed by Mr Lewis’ claim that while councillors should see themselves as volunteers rather than professional politicians, there was an expectation that being an elected mayor was a full-time job.

Almost 70% of leaders rejected this distinction while almost 60% disagreed that councillors were not full-time politicians.

Anyone who thought metropolitan leaders do “less work than – for example – the elected mayor of Doncaster must live on a differed planet to that inhabited by normal people,” one said. Another noted: “The position of mayor probably requires less work as the power of decision lies completely with one person.”

“Any leader worth their salt not only has to direct political direction but work very closely with group members at the same time.”

The most popular alternative to barring councillors but allowing elected mayors to remain scheme members was to ban both councillors and elected mayors from the LGPS, with 17.1% backing this approach. Meanwhile, 14.3% thought only leaders and cabinet members should remain eligible.

LGC’s survey also indicated anger towards Mr Lewis. One respondent, identifying themselves as a member of “one of the coalition parties”, accused Mr Lewis of “scandalous political opportunism on the part of the government, nasty, vindictive and anti-local government”.

Many respondents said their roles’ demands made it impossible to also take up pensionable employment.

“I was a project manager for an international credit card company and there is no way I could have continued in that role,” one said.

A metropolitan leader said anyone who considered the role as part-time was “detached from reality”. A unitary leader said they were “losing money through having to give up my regular job”.

Several also predicted that excluding councillors from the pension scheme would deter new candidates from coming forward.

Last week, Gary Porter, LGA Conservative group leader, told LGC he would ask Mr Lewis to row back on the proposal. “I’ve received a large amount of lobbying on this from Conservative councillors to resist the idea,” he added. “I expect to be putting it to Brandon and [communities minister] Eric [Pickles] that they shouldn’t make savings in this area.”

Councillors have been able to join the LGPS since 2003. According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance some 4,548 were members of it in 2010-11.

Pickles shoots from the hip – again

Eric Pickles has finally said something I agree with – local government employment rules are an anachronism and need to be changed. However, in order to grab yet another 15 minutes of fame and plenty of headlines, he’s conveniently overlooked that annoying thing called the legal system. I doubt whether too many councils will be tapping their highly paid CX on the shoulder and handing him or her their P45 anytime soon, simply based on a vote taken at a full council meeting.

The lawyers must love Eric Pickles, first the farce over Regional Strategies, now he’s inviting all the employment lawyers to order a new Aston Martin paid for by local taxpayers.

Copyright Local Government Chronicle
9 November, 2012 | By Ruth Keeling

Employment protections for council officers look set to be removed as communities secretary Eric Pickles renews his battle with “bureaucratic barons” and “golden goodbyes”.

Ministers are expected to propose the scrapping of a rule which requires councils to appoint a lawyer to conduct a review when an officer is suspended – a rule originally introduced to prevent dismissals motivated by political issues.

Mr Pickles is understood to be frustrated that councils frequently arrange large pay offs for chief executives in order to avoid the appointment of a lawyer and an expensive and lengthy investigation into the suspension.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said an amendment to the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001 would come “into effect early in the new year following a short consultation” which is not to last more than four weeks. It is not clear whether the amendment will affect section 151 officers and monitoring officers as well as chief executives and DCLG have been asked to clarify.

Writing in the Telegraph, he said: “Watching incompetent bureaucratic barons bouncing from one post to another with only a nice payoff to cushion their fall has been a source of immense frustration to many local government colleagues.

“At present getting rid of your chief exec involves a series of fantastical labyrinthine twists and turns — beginning with the appointment of a high-flying lawyer to review the case. It takes forever and costs a small fortune. One case took 16 months to adjudicate and racked up costs of £420,000.”

He added: “The days of lining your pockets at the expense of the taxpayer are over. In future, what’s decided in the full democratic council chamber will be what counts. And if elected representatives decide a chief executive is for the chop. So be it.”

The proposal is one of a raft of announcements made by Mr Pickles on Friday, including a call for councils get rid of the chief executive altogether.

A press release issued by the on Friday said: “The post of chief executive is not set in statute, which means there are no central barriers to remove the role. It only takes a simple democratic decision by the council. Several councils have done this in the past year. The statutory head of paid service role can be done by another senior officer.”

The secretary of state has also written to the LGA to “urge them to take steps to improve their performance management of senior posts” and he announced plans to strengthen guidance on the publication of pay policies.

Currently councils are advised to hold a vote on pay deals over £100,000, but Mr Pickles said smaller councils who do not have such high salaries should set a lower vote threshold and warned that ministers would regulate if councils don’t act on it.

DCLG said: “With a public worried about the cost of living and all parts of the public sector looking to make deficit savings, Ministers believe these steps will show taxpayers that value for money is being fully considered for top paid staff.”

Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

Some very pertinent comments and observations on the subject of a town council for Spalding, but there is a need to always keep in mind the cost of this. Are the people of Spalding prepared to see the charge of £23, currently identified as the Spalding Special Expenses, double, just for the pleasure of saying, ‘we have a town council’?

I say double, because even though the SSE stands at £209,000 and doubling it would take it to £418,000, which seems excessive, one has to use a worse case scenario, in order not to get a very nasty shock once any town council is established. I would anticipate the need to employ at least three full time staff for a town the size of Spalding. Given that one of our towns has just employed a new parish clerk at a cost of some £27k, to which they will need to add 20% at least, to cover employment costs, it doesn’t take much to see that the numbers roll up very quickly.

I also have a suspicion that, once any town council was in place, SHDC non-Spalding members would soon start to identified items of Spalding based expenditure, that they felt should be on the town council’s books and not on South Holland District Council’s.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first joined the district council, I was amazed to find that Spalding was unparished and that the district council controlled everything via the SSE. As I was in the privileged position of being the chairman of the newly resurrected STF, I did ask for the possibility of a town council to be explored. Even back then, a figure of £40k had been spoken of previously. This on a SSE, at the time, of approximately £85k. This figure was however questioned by some members, who believed that SHDC had manufactured that number as a scare tactic, in order to kill off the process. This at a time when the council was controlled by independents – I’ll leave it at that.

Recently, I did look at this issue again and even wrote to several town councils in the area, asking if they could give me some idea of their running costs. Unsurprisingly, none of them wrote back – parish and town councils have a reputation for being less than transparent in such matters. One council I did look at more closely, in order to draw some parallels, was Sleaford. According to their master plan, Sleaford has a population of around 17000, approximately half that of Spalding – Sleaford Town Council has a staff of SIX and 17 elected members. I don’t know how much SHDC would wish to charge a town council for office space, but I do know that it would not be free.

Wimbledon is showing on the TV as I type this, so I could be tempted to claim game, set and match on this question, simply based on affordability. However, things are never that simple. One has to accept that the will of the people could well outweigh purely financial considerations, especially if the right question is asked of them.

Instead of looking for conventional solutions to this perceived democratic deficit and given the financial depression most taxpayers find themselves faced with, is there another way to achieve the desired outcome? The Localism Bill introduced a right to challenge, perhaps a group of local people should start looking at ways of using this as a cost effective way of addressing this issue, in part at least.

Is regular door knocking a must for councillors?

(An alternative title for this entry could be, ‘If I go looking for problems, I’m bound to find some’.)

I’ve been having an interesting debate with somebody who is kind enough to follow my tweets and even better, offer me some robust and valuable feedback.

This one follows on from the ‘know your councillor’ leaflet discussion, but goes on to look at how proactive elected members should be when it comes to seeking out local issues.

I agree completely with the point being made about the visibility, or rather invisibility, of local councillors. However, that view is based more on being a local taxpayer, rather than a local councillor. As a local councillor, I’ve come to realise just how difficult it is to make, let alone keep, people aware of who you are and what you do.

Local elections are probably the only times sitting councillors actively communicate with every household in their ward. From experience, even having delivered at least three leaflets in a relatively short space of time, plus a post election thank you card, you still meet people who haven’t got a clue who you are, or what you do. I’m not suggesting that this is their fault, just that it demonstrates how challenging it is to make yourself known to people who are busy living their lives.

It’s also my experience that, unless it has a theme that people engage with, holding a public meeting is not particularly effective. Even though we deliver flyers to every household and put up posters, on average, 80 or so people attended our public meetings. On only one occasion, did we achieve a level of response that saw people being turned away, because the school hall we were using wasn’t big enough.

Even if I had the time, would I go door to door, introducing myself to every householder and asking them if they had any problems I could help with? To be completely honest, probably not. Providing I make myself available, give people my contact information in various formats on a regular basis, via leafleting and, as I have done three times in the last year or so, arrange public meetings, then I think I’m doing as much as I personally can.

Armed with my contact details and an invitation to contact me if they need help, whatever the issue, then I think it not unreasonable to expect people to meet me half way and get in touch if they think I can help. You might not agree with me and of course that’s your right, that’s politics.

A no to elected mayors brings cold comfort

This paragraph, lifted from one of Andrew Leighton’s latests blog entries, should be required reading for all of us who are privileged to hold the title, ‘councillor’.

‘Councillors and Council leaders should not take this as a vote of confidence. This was a profoundly anti-politics vote with many anti-politicians sitting at home. If the referendum had been to exile all local cllrs to Siberia a resounding yes vote would have been likely.’

http://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/will-no-votes-on-elected-mayors-sink-greg-clarks-promotion-as-locals-vote-against-localist-mayors/