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Posted by: John Brace | December 16, 2013

What’s a Wirral Council councillor worth?


What’s a Wirral Council councillor worth?

                       

Oliver asks for more porridge

Recently there has been a lot of anger expressed by the public over a proposed 11% pay rise for MPs from 2015. Wirral Council’s councillors (unlike MPs who after the expenses scandal agreed that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority would set their pay) still decide on what they’re paid. In fact the legislation states that when voting on this matter they don’t even have to declare an interest!

In a parallel with MPs, in order to keep the base amount that councillors get low over the years and presumably avoid a similar kind of bad publicity that the proposed pay rise for MPs is receiving, the base amount for being a Wirral Council councillor is currently set at £8,712 (equivalent to ~168/week). There are (in many cases similar to the MP’s expenses system) a bewildering amount of ways that Wirral Council’s councillors can increase this.

Each year what Wirral’s council’s councillors are paid is published on Wirral Council’s website. These figures I link to are from 2012/13. As Wirral Council’s financial year finishes about a month before we usually have elections (apart from next year when local elections will be combined with the European elections) there are some small amounts for people that were councillors for only a few weeks in that year or were elected part way through the financial year. If you discount these part year amounts, the amounts range from the basic £8,712 to £30,437.60 for the Leader of the Council Cllr Phil Davies.

In addition to the amounts in that list councillors receive extra if they represent Wirral Council on certain outside bodies such as Merseytravel or Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority. Both of these bodies decide themselves on their own allowances scheme.

So what is proposed at Wirral Council? Well periodically the allowances scheme is reviewed by the “Independent Panel on Members Allowances”. The Independent Panel doesn’t meet in public and there isn’t any public consultation on its findings.

Reading its report its conclusions are based on the input of councillors (a census of councillors on pay, other authority’s independent reports and the direct input of Cllr Phil Davies, Cllr Jeff Green and Cllr Phil Gilchrist) as well as senior officers at Wirral Council.

In distinct echoes of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority proposed 11% pay rise for MPs, Wirral Council’s independent panel recommends “When the financial climate allows, due consideration should be given to reinstating the 5% austerity cut in the basic allowance.”

However the rest of the recommendations remain relatively uncontroversial and are unchanged to what they were previously. The allowances for the Mayor and Deputy Mayor (of £10,700 and £1,500) remain the same. Both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor attend a lot of different events during their year in Wirral. The Mayor also has to chair Wirral Council Council meetings. Keeping order and making sure Council meetings don’t degenerate into people speaking being drowned out by heckling, requires courage, tact and a sense of humour as well as the respect from other councillors.

About a year ago, much of the work of the Employment and Appointments Committee (such as appeals against dismissal, grievance hearings etc) was delegated to the Chief Executive Graham Burgess so the special responsibility allowance of its Chair of £2,751 is proposed to be scrapped.

The Chairs of the new Constituency Committees won’t receive any extra for their role, but this will be reviewed once they are “up and running” (suggested for October 2014). Pensions for Wirral’s councillors have been ruled out until the end of the current Government/Treasury consultation exercise.

The panel estimated that the average councillor spends twenty-three hours a week on the role and that any future increases in allowances should be linked to staff pay.

Finally I’ll make a number of what could be termed party political points (*breaking a general rule of mine on this blog and no I’m not a member of a political party despite rumours to the contrary) about councillors allowances and elections.

The arrangements that the political parties on Wirral have with their councillors (as far as I know and please leave a comment to the contrary if I am wrong) is that their councillors contribute a share of their allowances to their political party. This money is then used at election time (in conjunction with sources of other money) by that political party to help their candidates win votes from the public and get re-elected.

This is why there is only one independent councillor on Wirral Council (who was elected as a Lib Dem). Any independent candidate would have to either be independently wealthy in order to fund their own campaign or have a wealthy patron in order to stand a chance financially against the taxpayer funded political parties.

It leads to a system of safe seats on Wirral where one political party holds all the seats in a ward for a very, very long time. Voters are in such wards can become apathetic of voting as they feel the election is a foregone conclusion and their vote won’t make a difference to the outcome. The only thing that tends to shake things up are boundary changes.

Personally I view this current situation as bad for democracy (although those who it benefits may disagree). As much as some politicians may not like scrutiny, they make better decisions more in tune with public opinion when other political parties (and individuals) are scrutinising them. If a politician feels they may in the future either suffer the embarrassment of losing an election (or not be reselected by their party as their candidate) it can lead to them working harder in the public interest for the full term of their office (and not just at election time).

We have a system on Wirral where politicians’ future career prospects are based on reselection by their party who then goes on to fund their campaign (subsidised by the taxpayer). Comments on the system of democracy we have are welcome.

P.S. I’ll also formally announce something here I decided a while ago. I won’t be standing as a candidate in the Wirral Council elections in 2014.

Writing this blog and publishing the footage of public meetings (only possible because of media and consultancy work I do that is better paid than writing about Wirral Council) is in my view more in the public interest than the commercial work I do.

To be honest with you I’m much better at being a blogger with the freedom to say things as I see them rather than get bogged down in the party politics of Wirral (which is tarnished by a past reputation for doing things for party political reasons rather than acting in the public interest).

On a related matter the proposed legislation which includes a clause about filming Council meetings (the Local Audit and Accountability Bill) reaches its third reading and report stage tomorrow (17th December 2013). These are the last of its stages in the House of Commons.

There are two more stages to go after that before it becomes law. Once it becomes law there will be secondary legislation on the filming issue (the Local Government Association wants to be consulted on it), which will hopefully make the current unsatisfactory situation much clearer.

If the only result of starting this blog (and no it wasn’t just me getting angry about this issue but other people too I’m not going to take the sole credit despite this blog being cited in one of Pickle’s press releases about it) is that a change in the law will mean councils (and other bodies spending public money) in England won’t have any spurious legal grounds be able to justify banning audio or video recording of their meetings, then hopefully the greater openness and transparency that results will be a greater contribution to democracy than I could have ever achieved had I been elected as a Wirral Council councillor. Personally I would’ve preferred to try out the human rights arguments about the filming matter in a court of law, but a change of legislation is a better long-term outcome.

On the subject of courts of law, the libel case involving Jacqui Thompson (the woman who was arrested for filming a Council meeting in Wales) has a hearing in the Court of Appeal today. Update 14:40 Permission to appeal was refused. There have been reports in the press about the legality of Carmarthenshire County Council’s paying for its Chief Executive Mark James’ legal costs in this case.

In more local legal matters the issue of Wirral Council’s request for a possession order for Fernbank Farm will be decided at Birkenhead County Court some time in the New Year.

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Responses

  1. If paying for legal costs has been deemed illegal,did Wirral break the law by paying Mr Norman’s legal fees? I remember a time when councillors were volunteers.long before the ‘me’ society was born. The councils that made uo Wirral,before 1974 were composed of people of standing in the local community some of whom were business people who could run a business and thus a council, NOT like now which is run by political dogma.

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    • The particular case was a libel case. There’s more detail on it on David Hencke’s blog.

      Basically Carmarthernshire Council paid £23,217 to indemnify its Chief Executive so he could could bring a counter claim of libel against a blogger who had sued him (and the Council) for libel.

      The Wales Audit Office ruled this amount (as well as a pension amount) unlawful as there is a law (and settled case law) preventing local councils doing this. The Council’s legal costs in the libel lawsuit came to £230k.

      Carmarthernshire Council though say they received a legal opinion saying it was lawful as they weren’t the ones doing the suing, but just bringing a counterclaim.

      Bill Norman’s case was an employment issue, therefore the laws (and caselaw) surrounding expenditure on libel cases don’t apply.

      I think one of the arguments about paying councillors an allowance was to widen the scope of people being politicians from being basically just wealthy businessmen to a wider cross section of society.

      I wasn’t around in the 70s so have no direct knowledge of what Wirral’s politics was like before the local government reorganisation in 1974.

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  2. Hi john, nothing cheers me up more than reading you blog & your dogged determination in bringing the council to account & keeping the public aware of what goes on in the clown Hall.

    On the subject of councillors allowances if you go onto what do they know website you will see my request for the council to publish the true extent of the allowances & I have quoted HMRC &DCLG regulations which clearly state that the figures should be published in their entirety in the local press once a year & after having asked for an internal review & WMBC have refused to publish it is now in the hands of the information commissioner for his decision.

    The council state that showing the figures on the website complies with the law whereas it clearly does not. I have been trying with the DCLG to get a decision but clearly they are on the councils side in the matter but hey hoo lets wait & see. Please have o look on the HMRC/DCLG notices clauses 80 onwards & see if you agree with reasoning. Have a nice Christmas & keep up the good work

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    • I’m aware of your FOI request about councillor’s allowances.

      I too have an appeal lodged with the Information Commissioner’s Office on 14th August regarding an FOI request to Wirral Council. I’m not holding my breath that it will get answered before Christmas!

      Certainly if ICO are to clear their FOI backlog and give decisions quicker, they need more funding on their FOI side.

      I’ve looked up the regulations referred to around publicity, there are two, this one about publicity refers to having to publish in a newspaper if the scheme is amended but also every twelve months too.

      Regulation 22 states there has to be similar publicity about the report of an independent renumeration panel. I haven’t been reading the Wirral Globe and Wirral News cover to cover since October, but I doubt this has happened!

      If I happen to bump into Surjit Tour tonight I’ll ask him what the situation is regarding these matters.

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  3. Agree the committee stating councillors allowances is published however HMRC &DCLG regulations state all their allowances repeat all should be published in the local press once year see HMRC/DCLG notice paragraphs 80 onwards, we shall wait with baited breath.

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    • The HMRC/DCLG references are just to the legislation I referred to in the earlier comment.

      I suppose the reason behind the legislation is that so if things are changed (as they propose to do tonight) that the public get a chance to know about it and express their views to their representatives in advance of a decision being made.

      Whereas this just seems to be another example of Wirral Council wanting to make decisions and inform the public after the fact so the public can’t lobby the decision makers before the decision is made (oh and also to deprive the press of a little bit of advertising revenue too).

      As I wrote earlier if I see Surjit Tour I’ll bring it up with him tonight.

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      • Just an update, although I was at the Council meeting yesterday, my path did not cross with that of Surjit Tour.

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  4. John you are correct in not standing as a councillor. You provide a greater service to the electorate in writing this blog. It is disturbing that you are not paid for a contribution which exceeds that of any single councillor who picks up £168 per week minimum.

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    • I think you’re being a little overly harsh to some of Wirral’s councillors.

      As it’s your area (accountancy), here are the economics of this blog for you over the last twelve months.

      Income (advertising on blog): (~37,000 views and ~19,000 visitors) $8.80
      Income (from videos about Wirral Council): $7.74

      Total: $16.54

      Expenditure (domain name johnbrace.com/hosting): $18

      Total profit/loss: -$1.46

      So you can see why I have to concentrate on more commercial work to keep things profitable! I haven’t included in the expenditure figures above essential items required to do this such as an internet connection, replacement camera equipment (and memory cards) from time to time, travelling expenses etc.

      As you can see with financial figures like that the blog wouldn’t even have qualified for a BIG or ISUS grant as it wouldn’t be classed as profitable.

      I know commercially some companies charge local authorities a five-figure sum annually for filming their meetings and putting them online.

      Local newspapers can subsidise their local Council coverage through the income they get through public notices. Sadly all the legislation on public notices refers to newspapers and not websites!

      However I’m sure with increased traffic this blog can turn a profit next year (especially as the local elections are bound to increase interest in all things political).

      I could probably get better at marketing this blog too.

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  5. I stand by my comment that your contribution is greater in effect than any one single councillor.

    The councillors are (back to ISUS) going to have allowed WBC to endure an erdf fine of at least £200,000 next year simply by their willingness to pass the parcel on the scandal. Divide that by 66 and you get a negative of £24k a head.

    Further they will have to explain why their own independent investigator was misled as to the source of detailed invoicing on ISUS. Grant Thornton and erdf were directed to Warrington A4e headquarters whereas in fact the data was always in WBC’s hands. That is another year of fruitless expense and mayhap we can put that down to Audit and Risk committee.

    I am angry with their ineffectiveness whereas your blog is a source of easy-to-read and vital information which I am sure many Councillors themselves do use.

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    • Just so readers know what some of the acronyms in the previous comment mean.

      ISUS Intensive Startup Support
      WBC Wirral Borough Council
      A4e Action For Employment
      ERDF European Regional Development Fund

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