'Twin-Hatters' at Norfolk County Council

August 21, 2009 3:57 PM

TPA supporter John Martin, pictured below, writes for us on the amount of ‘twin hatters’ (those councillors who sit on Norfolk County Council as well as one of the district councils) and explains how they can make a killing in allowances:


JohnMartin Why do “twin-hatters” – the name that appears to have been given to those members of Norfolk County Council (NCC) who also sit on one of the district councils – remain in the news?


The local elections in June, at which all 84 seats on NCC were contested, resulted in the creation of 50 twin-hatters who now make up almost two thirds of the total membership of NCC. The reason for this phenomenon, in all probability, was the distinct threat at that time that local government in Norfolk would be reorganised. The district councils would be abolished, and either one or two unitary authorities would take their place.


The instinct for survival in all of us is strong. A seat on NCC gives a much better chance of keeping a foot in the door for the future. Added to which, NCC pays members’ allowances at much more generous rates than any of the district councils. (The total bill for 2008/2009 came to about £1 million before payment of travel and subsistence expenses.)


To answer the original question, it is likely to be because in September the NCC Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) is due to meet to discuss the level of members’ allowances and to report back. In all fairness, the IRP should include in its deliberations the position of the fifty twin-hatters, as well as considering whether – in the middle of a severe recession – members’ allowances generally should continue to be paid at current levels.


Before looking at the issue of allowances, it is important to recognise that the existence of twin-hatters poses other problems.


First of all, can a twin-hatter dedicate sufficient time to serve adequately both on NCC and on his or her district council, particularly where the individual in question has special responsibilities as a member? (This might also include serving as an NCC appointed member of Norfolk Police Authority.)


The same question can be asked where the twin-hatter is shown in the register of members’ interests as employed or running a business. (There are no restrictions on members of NCC in this respect, nor any express requirement to dedicate a minimum number of hours to NCC business.) While the quality of the information contained in the register varies, it would seem that more than 20 twin-hatters have full-time work or business interests. A brief glance at the minutes of recent committee meetings will show that there are usually apologies for absence.


Secondly, there is the issue of conflict of interest. This arose spectacularly within a couple of weeks of the June local elections. Inevitably, the interests of NCC and of the district councils will not always coincide. More specifically, twin-hatters can then easily find that they have individual prejudicial interests that will prevent them from debating and voting on a motion before NCC.


In June, a motion was brought before NCC at a meeting of the full council, the main thrust of which was that NCC should drop its support for the unitary model of government in Norfolk and make formal representations to the Boundary Committee in support of the continued existence of the district councils. The point was immediately taken that the fifty twin-hatters each had a prejudicial interest in that each received allowances from his or her district council as well as from NCC. In consequence, the somewhat surreal situation arose in which little over a third of the NCC members would be able to debate and vote on the motion.


A meeting of the NCC standards committee then had to be summoned so that the committee could decide whether the unusual step of granting mass dispensations should be taken. Conflict of interest has to be viewed seriously.


But it is the issue of members’ allowances that has caused people to express disquiet. The usual perception of the public, when voting at a local government election, is that candidates generally expect to give a large proportion of their time voluntarily, and that their principal motivation is a desire to make a positive contribution to their communities. Council taxpayers in Norfolk, however, are no doubt horrified in the current economic climate to know of the levels of allowances paid, particularly to twin-hatters with special responsibilities.


They may have casually assumed that the financial rewards of being a councillor might amount to a couple of thousand pounds a year. However, some simple internet research shows that this is not so. The minimum starting point for a twin-hatter is a £12,500 a year. The range goes up to £40,000 a year. In fact, at least twelve twin-hatters are paid in excess of £17,000 a year. Seven of those are paid more than £25,000 a year. (And this is before travel and subsistence expenses.) Many residents of Norfolk would see themselves lucky in this climate to earn an annual salary of £12,500.


It is obviously essential that a lack of financial means should never deny any individual the ability to serve as an elected member of a local authority. Basic democratic principles make this so. But this can easily be catered for, as it is in other contexts. Equally, the occasional vital role, such as leader of that authority, will justify financial rewards akin to an appropriate annual salary, given the time commitment impliedly involved.


But if we go beyond that, the risk is that when financial rewards are seen to be excessively immodest, the public will not unreasonably perceive the motive for public service at local level to be a commercial one. That cannot be a good thing. We then start to move towards the role of career local politicians.


Does the answer lie in establishing a ceiling for the total allowances that can be paid to members of NCC? Is the answer to say that those members with special responsibilities should agree not to take up outside commercial interests? Should a minimum time commitment be stipulated for? These are all matters that the IRP should now debate.


In the meantime, twin-hatters might at least be asked to consider waiving the basic allowances that they receive as district councillors, simply taking their other allowance or allowances. This alone could put between £175,000 and £200,000 back in the public coffers.

TPA supporter John Martin, pictured below, writes for us on the amount of ‘twin hatters’ (those councillors who sit on Norfolk County Council as well as one of the district councils) and explains how they can make a killing in allowances:


JohnMartin Why do “twin-hatters” – the name that appears to have been given to those members of Norfolk County Council (NCC) who also sit on one of the district councils – remain in the news?


The local elections in June, at which all 84 seats on NCC were contested, resulted in the creation of 50 twin-hatters who now make up almost two thirds of the total membership of NCC. The reason for this phenomenon, in all probability, was the distinct threat at that time that local government in Norfolk would be reorganised. The district councils would be abolished, and either one or two unitary authorities would take their place.


The instinct for survival in all of us is strong. A seat on NCC gives a much better chance of keeping a foot in the door for the future. Added to which, NCC pays members’ allowances at much more generous rates than any of the district councils. (The total bill for 2008/2009 came to about £1 million before payment of travel and subsistence expenses.)


To answer the original question, it is likely to be because in September the NCC Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) is due to meet to discuss the level of members’ allowances and to report back. In all fairness, the IRP should include in its deliberations the position of the fifty twin-hatters, as well as considering whether – in the middle of a severe recession – members’ allowances generally should continue to be paid at current levels.


Before looking at the issue of allowances, it is important to recognise that the existence of twin-hatters poses other problems.


First of all, can a twin-hatter dedicate sufficient time to serve adequately both on NCC and on his or her district council, particularly where the individual in question has special responsibilities as a member? (This might also include serving as an NCC appointed member of Norfolk Police Authority.)


The same question can be asked where the twin-hatter is shown in the register of members’ interests as employed or running a business. (There are no restrictions on members of NCC in this respect, nor any express requirement to dedicate a minimum number of hours to NCC business.) While the quality of the information contained in the register varies, it would seem that more than 20 twin-hatters have full-time work or business interests. A brief glance at the minutes of recent committee meetings will show that there are usually apologies for absence.


Secondly, there is the issue of conflict of interest. This arose spectacularly within a couple of weeks of the June local elections. Inevitably, the interests of NCC and of the district councils will not always coincide. More specifically, twin-hatters can then easily find that they have individual prejudicial interests that will prevent them from debating and voting on a motion before NCC.


In June, a motion was brought before NCC at a meeting of the full council, the main thrust of which was that NCC should drop its support for the unitary model of government in Norfolk and make formal representations to the Boundary Committee in support of the continued existence of the district councils. The point was immediately taken that the fifty twin-hatters each had a prejudicial interest in that each received allowances from his or her district council as well as from NCC. In consequence, the somewhat surreal situation arose in which little over a third of the NCC members would be able to debate and vote on the motion.


A meeting of the NCC standards committee then had to be summoned so that the committee could decide whether the unusual step of granting mass dispensations should be taken. Conflict of interest has to be viewed seriously.


But it is the issue of members’ allowances that has caused people to express disquiet. The usual perception of the public, when voting at a local government election, is that candidates generally expect to give a large proportion of their time voluntarily, and that their principal motivation is a desire to make a positive contribution to their communities. Council taxpayers in Norfolk, however, are no doubt horrified in the current economic climate to know of the levels of allowances paid, particularly to twin-hatters with special responsibilities.


They may have casually assumed that the financial rewards of being a councillor might amount to a couple of thousand pounds a year. However, some simple internet research shows that this is not so. The minimum starting point for a twin-hatter is a £12,500 a year. The range goes up to £40,000 a year. In fact, at least twelve twin-hatters are paid in excess of £17,000 a year. Seven of those are paid more than £25,000 a year. (And this is before travel and subsistence expenses.) Many residents of Norfolk would see themselves lucky in this climate to earn an annual salary of £12,500.


It is obviously essential that a lack of financial means should never deny any individual the ability to serve as an elected member of a local authority. Basic democratic principles make this so. But this can easily be catered for, as it is in other contexts. Equally, the occasional vital role, such as leader of that authority, will justify financial rewards akin to an appropriate annual salary, given the time commitment impliedly involved.


But if we go beyond that, the risk is that when financial rewards are seen to be excessively immodest, the public will not unreasonably perceive the motive for public service at local level to be a commercial one. That cannot be a good thing. We then start to move towards the role of career local politicians.


Does the answer lie in establishing a ceiling for the total allowances that can be paid to members of NCC? Is the answer to say that those members with special responsibilities should agree not to take up outside commercial interests? Should a minimum time commitment be stipulated for? These are all matters that the IRP should now debate.


In the meantime, twin-hatters might at least be asked to consider waiving the basic allowances that they receive as district councillors, simply taking their other allowance or allowances. This alone could put between £175,000 and £200,000 back in the public coffers.

Latest Blogs: