Colchester’s Lib Dems help themselves to more public cash

Last night at Colchester Borough Council’s full council meeting, I spoke against proposals that would:

  1. Give the nominal Lib Dem leader a 107% pay rise
  2. Give over £2,000 of public money to any political group of just two people
  3. Give Group Leaders money for compliance rather than opposition
  4. Encourage councillors to split Group Leader roles from Cabinet roles to maximise the amount of public money they could claim.

The current Lib/Lab/Independent administration all voted for the proposals. They all stand to gain, particularly the Liberals and the Stanway and Highwoods Independents (who may well have only two councillors next May). The Conservative Group opposed them.

This is what I said (and what I wanted to say after the bell rang about 2/3 of the way through…)


 

Firstly I would like to thank the members of the Independent Remuneration Panel for what is largely a balanced and fair report.

In the current economic climate, most private sector employees are lucky not to get a pay cut, never mind a pay rise. The public sector is making do with 1%. And I can tell you from experience how tough it is out there for the self employed.

Against this backdrop, I welcome the report’s recommendation not to increase the basic allowance for Colchester Borough Councillors. However, it does concern me that we currently receive a higher basic allowance than all the other district councils in Essex. I therefore hope it remains frozen for some time to come.

I also welcome the general restraint the report has taken in regard to the Special Responsibility Allowances or SRAs. In some councils the very lax regulations governing SRAs have seen obscene situations arise where the majority of council members claim them. For example, in 2013, 51 of 57 Tameside councillors benefited from one SRA or another. No long ago, 32 of 50 Newham councillors were in the same luck position.

We not only owe a duty to Colchester residents to cut the cost of politics – incidentally a flagship Lib Dem policy in the run up to the 2010 General Election – we would also be wise to be seen to cut the cost of politics.

For this reason, I welcome the report’s intention to regularise the SRAs paid to political group leaders. It was impossible to justify why the leader of the Labour group should qualify for a £7,098 SRA for leading 9 councillors while the leader of the Conservative opposition should receive less than £800 more for leading 27 councillors.

In effect, a local council tax payer would surely wonder why a Labour councillor costs nearly £789 to lead while a Conservative costs only £292.

While I have major doubts about the £2,000 base sum the report recommends for a political group leader, I approve of setting a sum payable for each member of £220. If the final amount paid out under the new scheme doesn’t substantially differ from the current one, it is at least fairer and more transparent – and also more justifiable to the Colchester taxpayer.

That said, I do have major concerns with other aspects of the report’s recommendations for the SRAs paid to political group leaders.

Firstly, I believe the plan to award a £2,000 lump sum to the nominal leader of any political group of two members or more is ripe for abuse.

To give a hypothetical example, if after May’s elections, one group ends up with two councillors in Ward A and two councillors in Ward B, it would surely be tempting for that group to split into two groups. That way the nominal leader of each group of two people could both claim an SRA of £2,000 plus £440. In other words, the taxpayer would be forking out £4,880 instead of £2,880 — a loss of £2,000.

If, on the other hand, this hypothetical group retained only two councillors after May, one would immediately qualify for a £2,440 ‘leader’s’ allowance. The average Colchester resident would be rightly disgusted that they had to pay that sum for one person to apparently ‘lead’ another.

For this reason I strongly oppose the definition of a group for SRA purposes as being two people. I would suggest as a bare minimum 6 people, or enough councillors for two wards. Failing that, I would reject the £2,000 base SRA and move to a sum based exclusively on the number of representatives in any group. That would be both transparent and fair.

My next concern is centred around an extremely revealing change in terminology made in the report. The SRAs for ‘Main Opposition Leader’ and ‘Other Opposition Leader’ are being merged into the much simpler category of ‘Group Leader’s SRA’.

Here I believe the Council needs to address what these SRAs will actually achieve for the taxpayer.

Certainly there is an important democratic function in providing strong opposition. Indeed, this principle is enshrined in the Local Government (Members’ Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003.

These regulations cover SRAs in detail. Firstly, it may interest the Council to know that providing an SRA scheme is completely optional. However, where an SRA scheme does exist, there is only one payment that must be made — and that is to at least one members who does not belong to the controlling group. In other words the payment is to facilitate effective opposition.

Nowhere in the regulations does it say that every leader or nominal leader of every political group should get any extra cash.

In this context we need to remember that the council is currently administered by a coalition of three groups — the Lib Dems, Labour and Independents. The SRAs paid to the leaders of these three groups do not buy the taxpayer opposition — they simply reward compliance. The payments may be legal, but they are shameful. They are morally wrong and offer no benefit to the people we represent.

My final point concerns the anomaly where the nominal leader of the Lib Dem Grop is not the leader of the Council. To the ordinary person on the street this simply looks like a fiction that allows one person to get the Council Leader’s SRA and other the Group Leader’s SRA — if both posts were held by one person they would get only one extra payment. The same situation applies to the Highwoods & Stanway Independents — the Group Leader takes an SRA, and another takes a Portfolio Holder SRA.

So, in conclusion, I support freezing the basic rate allowance and the attempt to regularise the currently unfair Opposition Leader SRAs. But if we allow the recommendations in this report to stand, the proposals for Group Leader SRAS will leave the system wide open to abuse and provide poor value for residents who don’t have the power to vote themselves extra income.

These proposals mush either be sent back to the drawing board or affected councillors must think very carefully before accepting one more penny of public money.

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