Another government minister playing mind games with local government

All junior pupils to be enrolled in a libraryEvery junior school student in the country will be enrolled in a local library, Nicky Morgan will pledge today. The Education Secretary said it is a “national mission” to improve literacy levels of young children. Officials in the education department hope that the drive could stop closures of libraries across the country. Local authorities often close libraries and justify their decision by saying that there are not enough members to warrant continued funding.

So, Nicky Morgan is going to make it a “national mission” is she?  Is she also going to make it a nationally funded mission, so that councils aren’t forced to cut other services just to satisfy yet another piece of government double speak?  I can answer that question, without even bothering to ask the minister.  There’ll be no financial support forthcoming, just more weasel words from ministers, when councils cry foul.

Yet another Tory showing his utter disdain for Local Government

Axe town hall exec’
Council bosses will be swept out of town halls under radical plans by ministers. Unelected chief execs on six-figure salaries would be replaced by elected council leaders – saving taxpayers millions. The idea was pushed by Tory MP Andrew Griffiths.

In the same week a DCLG minister tells councillors that they don’t deserve to be in the Local Government Pension Scheme, because they are no more than community volunteers, a Tory MP wants councillors to replace chief executives – unbelievable!

Scrutiny is no more than whistling in the wind


Nearly every other day now, councillors are being told that they are, ‘key to driving forward the innovations needed to transform local government, so that it can weather the current financial storm being visited upon it by Westminster’.
Along with this often junior government minister uttered blurb, which is actually code for we’re passing the buck – they wouldn’t describe it as a ‘financial storm’, but rather, local government doing its bit – comes advice that the scrutiny process is an integral element in any transformation strategy.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to identify scrutiny as the way forward, given the abysmal record it has even when richly resourced and supported, as in the case of the Parliamentary scrutiny system.
Almost every other week we hear and read statements from various Parliamentary committees, with Keith Vaz and Margaret Hodge having a seemingly insatiable appetite for appearing on our TV screens, with the opening words, “The government needs to….”, yet what difference does it make to what the government actually does?
Translate this to the amateur, volunteer ‘scout master’ world of the local government councillor, where officer support is always at a premium and constantly under threat from the slash and burn economics of deficit reduction, and scrutiny looks more like whistling in the wind, than an insightful process, that can beat a path to innovative service delivery.

By way of a footnote, I would point to the recent revelations regarding the Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust. Lincolnshire County Council has a health scrutiny committee, with South Holland District Council represented by an independent councillor, who takes every opportunity to tell us what the committee is, or more accurately, isn’t doing. I say isn’t doing, because, in theory, if LCC’s scrutiny of our local hospitals was in any way effective, Lincolnshire hospitals wouldn’t have one of the highest abnormal death rates in England would it? Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten themselves completely hung up on the proposed changes to our local ambulance service instead.

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.

Councillors barred from pension scheme

This should please many of those who see elected members as surplus to requirements and wish to consign them to local government history as a failed experiment in democracy.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
19 December, 2012 | By Dan Drillsma-Milgrom

Councillors are to be barred from being members of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), local government minister Brandon Lewis has announced.

In a written ministerial statement made on Wednesday morning, Mr Lewis said that councillors would not be able to join the scheme after April 2014 and that councillors who are already members would not be able to accrue any further benefits after that date.

Mr Lewis said the government “did not believe that taxpayer-funded pensions are justified”.

“Councillors are volunteers undertaking public service; they are not and should be employees of the council dependent on the municipal payroll. They are not professional, full-time politicians, nor should they be encouraged to become so.”

However, the statement revealed that elected mayors would not be barred from LGPS membership in recognition of the “greater expectation than an elected mayor is a full-time position”. The government will consult on allowing elected mayors to remain in the scheme “as a voluntary option (but not as an expectation)”.

The salaries of Police and Crime Commissioners, the Mayor of London and London Assembly Members will also remain pensionable.

Mr Lewis admitted that his department did not hold records on councillors’ participation in the scheme. However, he said that “initial rough estimates suggest that this could save £7m a year in taxpayers’ money”. He said there was “absolutely no case” for increasing councillor allowances to compensate for the move.

Councillors have been able to join the LGPS since 2003. The Councillors’ Commission report found that by 2004, 912 councillors had joined the scheme. However, research from the Taxpayers’ Alliance found that number had grown to 3,527 in 2007-08 and 4,548 by 2010-11.

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Roger | 19-Dec-2012 12:55 pm
Another good example of different politicians in the same government department looking in completely different directions on an issue. One the one hand we have this statement, that members are volunteers and not to be considered or encouraged to be full time ’employees’ of the council. Then you have Eric Pickles telling elected members that they can fill the gap and replace officers culled under hiis ‘modest’ local government funding cuts. Do these people actually talk to each other?
If these sort of petty almost spiteful statements don’t deter the younger members of our communities from becoming councillors in the future, then I’m sure DCLG have more up their sleeves to do the job!

Same old game with a different name

I see from today’s Sunday Telegraph that parish and town councils are going to be encouraged to take on more local services as a way of forcing sorry, encouraging, the cause of Localism and the ‘Big Society’.

No problem with that as a concept, given that the cost of running many of the basic services that people value, is often inflated by the management structure of the organisation that runs the service, but without adding any real value to it.

Unfortunately, what is likely to happen is that, as these grassroots organisations gain more and more power, they are going to turn in to the ‘bureacratic monsters’ they were supposed to be replacing. Those little parish councils currently run by a part time clerk, who probably works for one or even two other parish councils, will suddenly find there’s a need for both a full time clerk, a book keeper or accountant, somebody who has some legal training, an HR expert just in case they get problems with employment law, an elf and safety expert, etc, etc.

Parish and town councils at present are not answerable to anybody, other than their voters, for excessive increases in their precept (their version of the council tax) unlike district councils, that can be capped and forced to re-bill by central government. So the next stage in this charade will be the need to introduce legislation requiring parish and town councils to submit balanced budgets and within government limits – how long before the first parish or town council kicks out their parish clerk and appoints a high paid chief executive? Before you know it you’ll be back where we are today, just using different names for it!

Big Society – if the price is right

David Cameron is refusing to give up on his Big Society idea, with a speech tomorrow (Monday) to remind people of what it’s about.  One TV commentator was cruel enough to inform viewer that, if this were a film launch, it would be billed as Big Society 4.

I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron hasn’t already missed the boat on this in terms of public attitude?  How many volunteer led activities have folded in recent years, because of a lack of people willing to give up their time?  Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, along with numerous social clubs and community run halls, to name but a few.

Surly, if there were so many willing people out there, wouldn’t they already be doing it?  What is it about Big Society that’s going to bring all these potential volunteers out of the closet?

Even if it does succeed, this drive to turn us in to a nation of volunteers, (now that we’ve pretty much killed off all the shop keepers) has its fair share of negatives.  Just like his ministers, David Cameron seems hell bent on subjecting this country to a local government bypass operation.  It’s as though councils are being blamed for all the ills in our communities and that bypassing them to recruit a new set of volunteers, will somehow bring these communities back to back to health.

I say new set of volunteers because central government seems to have forgotten that local government already has a large number of volunteers.  They’re called elected members and they were put there by their communities.

Until the last government started interfering with the process, local government was very much something you got involved in because you wished to make a contribution to your community and were willing to make some financial sacrifices in order to do so.  Now, with the advent of members’ allowance and special responsibility payments that often run in to the tens of thousands, the clarity of this aspect of being an elected has become decidedly blurred.  Given the Pickles drive to cull local government senior and middle management and give the job to the members, this blurring can only get worse.

My second gripe about the Big Society idea, is that many of the charities that are apparently going to become the saviours of everything the public values, are often run like full blown businesses.  Many have chief executives and senior managers employed on a purely commercial basis, with pay packets to match.  I doubt if these people agree to take a reduced salary just because it’s a charity that’s employing them.

So, as with elected members, the public service ethos of volunteering to provide a service to communities, will become more and more blurred over time, as the big charities and their army of well meaning volunteers burrow their way in to the various local government service delivery areas.  As we see more and more services transferred from the stewardship of one set of elected volunteers and into the hands of those who are unelected and therefore far less accountable, a major question comes to mind.

Unlike those employed in local government, the senior management of the big charities bring none of the public service ethos that is currently present in local government, but do display much of the commercialism of the private sector.  How long will it be before it is impossible to tell the difference between a service delivered by a ‘charity’ and that delivered by an outsourcing company?

Not a major problem in itself you might think – who cares who delivers the service, as long as it’s delivered?  The problem is, once you’ve killed off the competition, in the form of the current local government structures and the only providers in the market are the privateers, it becomes a sellers market.  The defence industry has already done this via the MOD, now it would seem that it’s the turn of local government.  Come on Down The Price Is Right (for those old enough to remember the TV show).