It is difficult for councillors to set their own allowances. It always generates controversy. Yesterday, councillors agreed the recommendations of an independent review to increase the backbencher allowance by 4% to £12,000 (which does not restore a previous cut of 6%). More importantly, it agreed to my proposal to raise allowances in line with the annual increase in council staff wages. We need never discuss backbench allowances again. We will need to debate adjustments on how much cabinet members and committee chairs receive. These roles change when the way the council works changes.
Many councillors work their socks off, not for their allowance, but with the help of their allowance. Some I am sure don’t need the money but we can’t means test allowances.
The headline is that the Basic Allowance all councillors receive will be increased from £11,514 to £12,000. That looks a big increase at just over 4%. But it does not restore the Basic Allowance of £12,200 councillors received in 2009. In the darker days of the Shropshire Council, its leader Keith Barrow dismissed all council staff and forced them to reapply for their jobs at 6% lower rates. While many councillors did not agree with his aggressive action, they rightly felt they must emphasise with the staff and accept an equivalent cut.
Barrow’s action meant that council staff were no longer on national pay scales. Not only was that unfair but we had difficulty attracting staff. Come to Shropshire and be paid less was his message! One of the few good things that Peter Nutting achieved in his time as a leader was to put council staff back on national pay scales.
Members’ allowances are pay in all but a different name. I get a payslip. I pay national insurance. I pay tax on my pension and allowance combined. If the electorate sack me, I will get a P45 from the council.
Yesterday, we met in Theatre Severn for a meeting that was not much socially distanced as socially remote. The lighting in a theatre is designed to highlight the stage not the audience so we had difficulty seeing each other across the three tiers. There were no mikes for backbenchers speaking. I was in the circle and could not hear people in the stalls or the gods very well.
That led to some interesting dynamics. Councillors looked around in puzzlement wondering who was speaking, even if anyone was speaking. Statements had to be repeated in louder voices. The usual body language signalling, whispers and passing of notes that goes on in packed council chamber was absent. We Lib Dems have used WhatsApp for ages but it seems that the Conservatives may not have caught up.
In the last few years, we have not got to grips with backbenchers’ pay, the Basic Allowance. We have deferred or rejected a decision more often than I can remember. Recommendations on allowances are made by an Independent Remuneration Panel. The members, who are not councillors, work hard to assess the workload of us councillors and to assess that against national benchmarks. It is a difficult job and members of the panel have resigned in the past when their recommendations have been dismissed by the council leadership.
Yesterday, we got rid of all that. I proposed that the Basic Allowance is uprated in future in line with the agreed increase in staff wages. Typically, that is 1-2% a year, though has often been 0%. Lower paid staff tend to get a higher percentage due to the national living wage and through pay settlements that award more money to the lowest paid. The percentage increase that councillors will now get is pegged at the percentage increase that staff currently earning around £24,000 a year will get (SCP18). That will assure that councillors do not benefit from the larger adjustments at the lower end of the pay scale.
Because I had not submitted my amendment beforehand, the Conservatives had not been told how to vote. Yes. If you are a Tory, you are told how you must vote. We had all thought that my amendment had fallen, as far as we could see there were not enough hands raised. One journalist told me that she was already preparing her report along the lines of Boddington’s motion lost, when an extraordinary thing happened.
The newly appointed leader, Lezley Picton, raised her hand. The newly appointed Chairman, Vince Hunt raised his hand. And then from the stalls to the gods, the Conservatives raised their hands. Like sheep flocking towards the quad bike as food is delivered.
We will call in the Independent Remuneration Panel in future when responsibilities for committee chairs, all Conservatives, change. But at last, we have a mechanism for taking the politics out of backbenchers pay.
“This council agrees that the Basic Allowance is increased annually in line with the percentage increase for local government staff recommended by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services, of if different, the percentage increase awarded by Shropshire Council. For clarity, this should be the percentage increase awarded to staff at SCP 18.”