Members allowances

Much has been said about the members allowance debate. It is worth just laying out a few points to reflect on.

The rules state that our allowances have to be looked at at least every four years by an independent panel. We are overdue. This does not deal with inflation but is expected to give transparency to the scheme and make adjustments for work loads and structures.

Members then have to vote to agree the results of the panel review, something I think is wrong. But those are the rules set nationally. As the Leader of the Council it falls to me to table the report to enable it to be debated what ever my thoughts on the matter, on behalf of the council. The trouble about voting your own allowances is that people feel awkward about it and it can seem to the outside world that we are self serving. The trouble is that is the system. I am sure we will all be looking to see if anything can be improved before the next review in 4 years time. Yes, we do it all again every four years.

I believe that recommendations from an independent panel should be accepted in full unless there is a very significant error.

Cambridgeshire County Council Is responsible for something like £1billion of spend. A district or city council has a budget of between £10m and £30m. Hugely important work at district but nothing like as complex as managing the counties roads, adult social care or children’s services. Comparing district council allowances and county allowances is missing that point.

Cambridgeshire County Council allowances are right at the bottom when compared to other county councils.

I have heard that this is not a good time. Can someone tell me when would be a good time? I am inclined not to make such judgements but to stick to the rules in this case and carry out the review every four years as we are supposed to. Please all feel free to lobby government to change things.

I have heard much about the 25% increase in the basic allowance. Or of course those that want to inform the debate could say just under £2000 before deductions. Or to put it another way £9500 for approximately 2.5 days work a week. But I guess if you want to make a sensation out of a small number percentages sound much bigger. We must not forget that councillors are people as well, with families and financial commitments just like everyone else.

There are some flaws in our current allowances scheme that don’t match good practice. For example, if a councillor is suspended then he still gets his allowance! Work carried out by the adoption panel members is not recognised despite it being a heavy work load.

Councillors work hard for there communities, under the huge pressure of public scrutiny and often have to deal with abuse and language that would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. I am expecting that all those people who are critical of councillors to sign up for elections in the future to see if they can improve things. We will welcome the help.

I have lost two cabinet members since May, with allowances playing a significant part in those decisions. Both females, who are under represented, both very able. I am also aware of another female, also extremely able, who will not be standing for election in 18 months time because of her financial situation. If the public is to be represented effectively it needs councillors of calibre and I am afraid money is part of it. The purists may disagree but it is the real world we live in. Most people work 37 hours a week for a full time salary. Cabinet members work many more hours than that for a part time allowance. High calibre councillors, high calibre services.

During the debate, which I thought was thoughtful and informed, I noticed that apart from the 40 seconds of introduction that Kilian Bourke made, not a single Lib Dem spoke during the debate. I couldn’t work out at the time if this was cowardice, in letting others decide on their allowances or some political ruse. I had been reassured by Kilian that it would be a free whip as it was in my group. However, I have never seen any debate take place, in the chamber, without Lib Dems taking advantage of being able to speak in public. This was very odd. If felt like some sort of whip had been applied. Good input from Labour and the Independents and a mix of thoughts from my own group.

In a free vote making opinions known in the debating chamber is how votes are won and lost. Lib Dem silence in the Council Chamber did them and their fellow Councillors a dis-service. And after their disrespect for democratic process, they now decide they want to speak on the issue by bringing the matter back before Council in December. Speaking up on Tuesday was the right thing to do and they failed again.

The vote was taken with a close result for approval. Councillor Heathcock, Lib Dem, voted for the approval, some of my group voted against and the independent Councillor Nichola Harrison said her decision to support it had been swayed by the debate. It is a scandal that the Lib Dems did not enter the debate.

Worse, it now seems that we are to repeat the unedifying spectacle of debating our own allowances again in December because 14 Lib Dems are calling for the decision to be rescinded. Why did they not engage in the debate? This is weak, opportunist behaviour from a group that has no policies and sees opposing everything, good or bad, as effective politics. It is not. In a recent press release for Kilian Bourke to claim they had “firmly opposed” is hypocrisy at best.

Remember, it was my duty to table the motion and to speak to it in a positive way. All the party leaders wanted the allowances review. Democracy is served if effective councillors are elected which is why it is my responsibility to help remove as many barriers to that as possible. The current allowance scheme is one of them.

If any mistakes have been made, and yes that does happen from time to time, in appointing the independent panel I am sure they will be corrected. Apart from agreeing that the review should take place, with other group leaders, and being interviewed by the panel, I have deliberately stayed as far away from the review as possible to ensure I had no influence over it. I am so pleased that one of the panel was a senior boss at Archant, the publication company that owns the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard.

Now back to sorting out the adult social care overspend.

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