Political patronage on the rates has reached ridiculous proportions at Croydon Town Hall, reports WALTER CRONXITE
Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, parliamentary elder statesmen and former Foreign Secretaries, are clearly not as sharp as they would have liked us to think that they are. And to think that Rifkind reckons he can barely manage as a “freelance” MP on a mere 67 grand a year.
But all the earnest calls last week for MPs to be restricted to holding down just one job, that of being an MP, missed the point entirely. It seems unlikely that the response of the dishonourable members when the Channel 4 Dispatches sting operation came calling would have been any different, whether they had one job, three jobs or 10 jobs.
Taking every opportunity to line your pockets while being paid generously at public expense – just as Croydon South’s Tricky Dicky Ottaway was exposed as doing in the past – appears to have become an occupational necessity for many of our elected representatives.
In the past, MPs always had a “hinterland”, a business or profession on which they could fall back. The stipend for being an MP was so modest that only the wealthy could afford to take on the responsibility. The current salaries, set at around three times the national average salary, really ought to be enough to attract a suitable calibre of candidate and without the need for “independent means”.
Having MPs relying on their parliamentary salaries as their only source of income tends to render them all the more dependent on their party leaders for preferment into ministerial roles – and a wage increase.
Certainly, at Croydon Town Hall, where there is an increasing number of full-time councillors, the patronage in the hands of Tony Newman and Tim Pollard has become ever more powerful.
Yet, while at Westminster Ed Miliband was challenging David Cameron to support the one-job proposal, here in Croydon, Tory MP Gavin Barwell was breaking ranks in calling for the council’s cabinet members to forsake any jobs outside the Town Hall.
Intriguingly, Barwell never suggested such a move when his Conservative colleagues were running the council, with Steve “Three Jobs” O’Connell holding a front bench job as well as being the London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton and holding another position at City Hall, which all added up to a six-figure income for the Kenley councillor. Likewise, even though the position doesn’t offer any benefits to him directly, Barwell has stubbornly refused to relinquish his seat on the board of the Whitgift Foundation, the landowners at the centre of the £1 billion Hammersfield redevelopment.
Nevertheless Barwell has highlighted a matter of increasing concern now that our local councillors are handsomely paid.
The calibre of senior local councillors rarely matches that of high-level barristers, business people, journalists, medics and prospective influence peddlers who combine their outside earning roles with being an MP.
A good number of Croydon’s 40 Labour councillors might not be employable elsewhere, so would not even be able to aspire to holding down a second job. Many councillors on both sides are retired, or prematurely retired, and for them the £11,000 per annum minimum payment in “allowances” is a handy top-up for their pensions.
To their credit, some Labour councillors have voluntarily given up their previous jobs to concentrate on their council responsibilities full time. Only a couple of the 11 highest paid Labour councillors now have second jobs.
All the same, Croydon’s Council Tax-payers may be surprised to learn that their local politicians are costing them £1,446,455 a year in “allowances” (as the Town Hall’s Trumptonesque etiquette describes them). This figure is before the employer National Insurance that the council has to pay on top of these salaries… sorry “allowances”.
If you ever play the Lottery, you may find the that the odds in putting together a syndicate to compete for winning access to £5,785,820 of councillor allowances over four years is a lot better than those odds on offer on the lotto.
This massive cost to Croydon is partly because there are far too many councillors. With 70, Croydon has the largest number of councillors of any London borough.
This was hard to justify even when all the council’s decision making was transacted via an extensive system of committees. But for the last 15 years, under Labour and the Conservatives, decision-making power has been concentrated with the leader of the council and up to 10 councillors in the pompously named “Cabinet”.
The “strong leader” model used by Croydon Council sees the leader appointed for four years. A good number of the 70 councillors are left with only a close to non-existent role to play in holding the council to account.
Following the last full council meeting held on February 23, there is now not another full meeting of the council until April 20 – an eight-week gap. Once the council has had just one meeting in the summer this year it will meet just once again during the autumn and then convene just once more in 2015 to allow it to consume some alcoholic punch in the Mayor’s Parlour at Christmas. And Malcolm Rifkind thought that he had a lot of spare time on his hands.
Some councillors with little to do at the Town Hall are hard-working in their local wards. It’s hard, though, to tell how much these councillors are doing, as they don’t have formal contracts of employment. Croydon Council, unlike other councils, does not publish accessible attendance records and individual councillors do not have to report what they are doing or achieving.
Although elsewhere the council’s spending has been reduced by one-third, one area that has remained ring-fenced is the cost of councillors. A council cut-back to, say, 46 councillors – another one-third cut – would still leave enough to hold an executive cabinet to account, and offer an “easy” saving of nearly £2 million over the course of four years.
There have been calls from the trades unions and from the right-wing Tax-payers’ Alliance to reduce spending on councillors, but neither Labour’s Newman nor Tory Pollard appear keen. Why not? Because Council Tax-payers have provided the local political groups with a handy little war chest, for the sort of patronage worthy of a Medieval Italian princedom.
A proportion of that public money which is paid to councillors ends up going straight to the two local political parties, as the “impost”, a sort of political tax on the councillors, towards their party funds and campaigns, all helping to perpetuate the duopoly which controls the Town Hall – and another scandal waiting to break in Katharine Street, and other town halls up and down the country.
The £956,144 a year in the gift of the leader of the council to pay to his colleagues goes a long way to explaining why some Labour councillors have gone mute since being elected last May, instead of joining the chorus of criticism as Newman and his well-paid cabinet (many of whom are on £43,339 per year) flip and flop their way from one blunder and error of judgement to the next.
With so many cabinet members entirely reliant on their Town Hall pay packet, few would want to risk seeing their annual income drop by up to £34,605 if they get dumped back on the back benches as a punishment for expressing any reservations about the leader’s performance. The Labour cabinet members only have to look across to the Tory benches to see Mike Fisher, now trying to get by on the minimum £11,239, after being caught out unilaterally giving himself his #WadGate pay rise to £62,000 when he was leader.
It’s not just the Labour administration which benefits from this publicly funded patronage. Fisher’s dreadfully dull and uninspiring replacement as the Tory leader, Tim Pollard, has £490,311 a year available to him to buy the loyalty of Conservative councillors.
It all represents quite a strong argument for our local politicians actually having second jobs, to give them greater independence from the party system, and leaving them better able to speak out.
But the MP for the Whitgift Foundation is perhaps not the best person to raise the issue. Barwell, a former Conservative Central Office apparatchik, has never been employed in a role outside politics. It is that cadre of professional politicians who have been in “the political game” ever since leaving Oxbridge which looks most likely to benefit from any Miliband ban on outside interests.
Cuts in the number of higher paid Croydon cabinet positions at £43,339 a year (the two deputy leaders receive £45,844 a year) could redirect much-needed money to frontline services. You don’t have to have 10 cabinet members – that’s just a legal maximum, but few council leaders turn down the financial largesse that they can dish out to keep their political group supportive of the leader.
In Croydon, the council appears to be run by four senior officials with, in the main, Councillors Newman, Butler and Scott holding the key political posts. So having 10 executive councillors seems an extravagant use of public money.
Patronage does not end at cabinet level. Each cabinet member has a deputy on £21,371 a year. Some deputies report that they have little involvement in the departments in which they notionally have an executive role. And then there are the various chairs of committees, some of which meet infrequently.
With 48 of the 70 councillors on some kind of extra patronage beyond the basic £11,239, too many of our councillors are dependent on the payroll of their leaders. And that’s exactly how Pollard and Newman like it.
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