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Politician's Expenses

What's the issue? While we are all disgusted at some MPs abuses of their expenses system, the key issue at local level is: how much should we pay our Councillors?

The Facts: Town Councillors get paid expenses, but no Allowance; their meetings are all in the evenings at least 6 full town council meetings a year plus additional meetings depending on their individual responsibilities. District Councillors get paid an Allowance of £5404 plus expenses such as mileage; the Leader gets £27,022 and Cabinet Members get £13,511. Their meetings are generally in the evening again around 6 meetings of the full District Council per year alongside individual responsibilities, but some meetings are during the day. County Councillors get an Allowance of £9588, the Leader gets £38,352 and a Cabinet Member gets £19,176. They meet during the day, and a County Councillor expects to be at County Hall two days a week.

Should we pay Councillors at all? Few would disagree that expenses for postage, phone, and mileage should be reimbursed. However, if Councillors are attending a couple of evening meetings a month, should they be paid to do so? Your answer will depend on whether or not you think we are better served by professional politicians or by public-spirited amateurs. There is a good case for arguing that the 50 County Councillors looking after £1.2bn should be semi-professionals, but the 50 East Herts Councillors looking after £24.2 seem to have their snouts well and truly in the trough.

What is a reasonable allowance? It is argued that since it is getting harder to recruit good candidates, an allowance (on top of expenses) will tempt good people to consider giving up time to serve the community. However, people go into politics because they want to change the world, and the thing they look at is: how much power does this Council have to change the world? If Parish and Town Councils have power and responsibility continually taken away from them, they will find it harder to attract good people. It is unlikely that cash payments will make up for the loss of power and ability to improve the community.

The Arguments against high Allowances: In 1999 a District Councillor received £750 each year for phone and postage, and could claim for mileage. The Local Government Act 2000 demanded a new way of working, and without the public realising it, Councillors voted themselves large allowances. Like MPs, we were told this was the new system, and we had to go along with it as everybody else was. As Area Forum Chair, I suddenly found I was getting about £10,000 a year. (East Herts Council will confirm that I gave my allowance to charity through the Give-as-you-Earn scheme).  As Councillors came to rely on this cash, I remember one election for a Committee Chairmanship where the incumbent begged with Councillors for re-election as life would be impossible without the income. When an allowance moves from covering reasonable expenses to becoming a necessity for living, there is a change in the willingness to fight a moral issue.

The Arguments for high Allowances: if we pay good money, we will get better people, and nobody will be excluded from being a Councillor because they cannot afford it.

Do we want more Professional Politicians? Some will argue from experience in other countries that fewer, and better paid, politicians is the best solution. The Town Council in Edmonton, Canada, has twelve councillors each representing 100,000 voters, and all are Independents. Others will argue that the involvement of volunteers who want to serve their community is the best protection against tyranny and corruption.

Have your say: What do you think about all this? Do you think your elected Councillors deserve an allowance?  Do you think they represent value for money?

Let us know: 

Jim Thornton's view is that we should try and move as much power back to the grass roots as possible, and keep the amateurs as high up the system as reasonably possible. There are areas like Planning Committees where the Members do a great deal of hard work, and these need to be considered as special cases. Any Council needs a mix of experience and enthusiasm, and the sad thing is how many Councillors serve only one term, leaving disillusioned with the system.  

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