In another article for the TPA, our supporter John Martin wants to know who, on the IRP, decides the pay of Norfolk's county councillors.
In the next two or three months, Norfolk County Council (NCC) will decide whether its councillors should have their allowances increased. This will follow on from a report to be prepared by the NCC Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) setting out its recommendations. When the IRP last met two years ago, it recommended an across the board increase of 28%. Needless to say, the NCC councillors voted unanimously to approve that. One councillor even asked whether the increase could be backdated. Another called for councillors to receive pensions.
Unsurprisingly, there was considerable public disquiet at NCC’s overall annual bill for councillors’ allowances rising to above £1million. In addition, of course, council taxpayers also bear the burden of the allowances paid by the seven district councils in Norfolk to their councillors.
In the intervening two years, Britain has gone into the worst economic slump in recent history. NCC, in particular, has announced that it will have to make “difficult choices” to effect £140 million of overall savings during the next three years. What approach should be taken to the question of its councillors’ allowances? We need to start with the IRP.
The four present members of the IRP apparently were originally invited by NCC to join the panel. Their backgrounds are in the business, education and voluntary sectors. In producing their 2007 report, they adopted a very thorough and methodical approach. It was no doubt right for the time. Surely now, however, they should be joined by, say, three additional members who are possibly more representative of council taxpayers and service users.
If NCC were to advertise those posts publicly (as it does for independent posts on its Standards Committee and on the Norfolk Police Authority) and invite applications, this would give a much wider range of individuals the opportunity to participate in an exercise that results, at present, in the expenditure of over £1 million annually of public money. Such individuals would, of course, have to meet the existing statutory criteria for appointment and – ideally – have no political affiliations. However, they might also be better placed to form a view on how effective councillors are, in terms of value for money.
Linked to this, the IRP should then publicise its intended deliberations and invite representations from council taxpayers and service users, on the understanding that these would be taken into account.
A crucial question that the IRP needs to ask again is how much time do councillors actually spend on NCC business. In 2007, the IRP conducted a written survey among the 84 councillors. Somewhat regrettable only 41 responded. Answers to this question ranged widely from four hours to forty-nine hours a week. The IRP decided to base its recommendations on a notional figure of 20 hours a week. Surely on this occasion, it should seek much more reliable evidence of what the true average time commitment is before making its recommendations.
The IRP may also want to bear in mind that many councillors do regard their allowances as a wage. In fact, one NCC cabinet member was quoted in the press in 2007 as saying that the hourly rate for the members’ allowance totalled less than the minimum wage. If councillors do view their allowances as a wage, then possibly the IRP should recommend that councillors should be prepared to accept in return obligations of the kind that wage earners commonly have to accept, such as a minimum hours commitment and time-recording.
But should councillors be entitled to take that view? It certainly does not accord with the public’s view. 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. Has financial reward now become the main motivation?
Two years ago the IRP built into its recommendations what is known as a “voluntary discount element”. This is intended to reflect the notion that some percentage of a councillor’s time should be viewed as voluntary. The IRP set this at 30% having received views from those councillors who responded to its survey suggesting figures ranging from 0% to 100%! Surely on this occasion, the figure of 30% should be considerably uplifted, so as to come closer in line with public perception.
Let us now turn to NCC and the councillors themselves. The IRP simply makes recommendations. It is the councillors who decide how much to pay themselves in allowances.
First of all, they should take into account the fact that already there is over £1million of council taxpayers’ money involved, and that huge cost savings need to be made. This is happening throughout the private sector, as we all know. There is no bottomless pot of money into which they can dip to pay themselves.
They should then ask themselves why they stood for election in June this year. Was it from the desire to serve their communities, or was it to achieve an income? (Bear in mind that, with the system of additional allowances for special responsibility, at least 12 NCC councillors receive over £22,000 a year.) They should then agree, whether or not this forms part of the IRP recommendations, to increase the voluntary discount element considerably and apply it also to special responsibility allowances.
Finally, they should consider the position of the “twin-hatters”. These are the fifty councillors who sit not only on NCC but also on one of the district councils, so drawing two sets of allowances. Some simple research shows that the starting point for a twin-hatter is £12,500 a year and that the range goes up to £40,000 a year. Surely, NCC should make the decision that no councillor should receive a full basic allowance while already being in receipt of one from a district council. This alone could put between £175,000 and £200,000 back in the public coffers.
The councillors at NCC certainly face some difficult choices, perhaps none more difficult than how much to pay themselves in a very changed economic climate.