|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
'which are operating executive arrangements'.
Mr. Atkinson: The amendments have the particular purpose of reversing the trend towards professional, full-time councillors, and of preventing the substantial increase in the power of patronage that will result from the Bill.
Amendment No. 217 would remove the proposals relating to allowances, and the requirement to pay pensions to councillors. In Committee, we opposed the Government's proposal to pay pensions to executive members in the cabinet system. We did not consider that any councillor should be entitled to a pension, but the complaint to the Government was that it is was unfair to pay pensions only to executive members, rather than to all councillors. The Government have decided, therefore, to extend the pension regime to all local councillors.
We oppose the provision, as we believe that being a councillor is a matter of public duty. We do not consider it an activity that deserves large-scale reward, as the Government propose. In addition, the proposal has unleashed a host of headlines in various local newspapers about fat-cattery, especially in Labour councils.
No sooner was the idea of cabinets mooted than councillors throughout the country, particularly Labour councillors, began to award their leaders substantial sums of money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said in Committee, Hammersmith and Fulham was the first in this respect, with the council leader becoming, at that time, the most highly paid in the country. Hot on the heels of that award was the leader of Cardiff city council with an allowance of between £35,000 and £40,000 a year.
If my memory serves me right, the lord mayor of Cardiff was earmarked a salary of £58,000. It was only after protests and difficult meetings that that amount was reduced. When that issue was debated in Cardiff, members of the Labour group who opposed paying the lord mayor such a salary were subsequently suspended. That demonstrates the attitude of Labour councillors towards the new cabinet system.
My local newspaper, and that of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, is The Journal in Newcastle. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady points out that The Northern Echo is her local paper, but I believe that The Journal also circulates in her constituency. In any case, The Journal carried out a survey of north-east councils and their reaction to the cabinet system. It produced a headline, which I think damages all in local government: "Labour Councils Branded 'Fat Cats'". The paper contained an expose of the amounts paid to various councillors. I am pleased to say that it included a photograph of me, taken nearly 15 years ago. It is always flattering to be reminded of what one looked like 15 years ago.
The Journal did a detailed analysis of how councillors' allowances had increased. In Sunderland, for example, the leader of the council's allowance went up from £10,900 to £30,000 a year. The leader of Sedgefield council, the Prime Minister's local authority, put up his allowance from £4,000 to £15,000 a year. If that were not enough, there have been huge increases in the leader's salary and
Mr. Levitt: I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's list with interest. Is he saying that only people who can afford to be councillors and pay their own pension contributions should be councillors? That is the conclusion that I am drawing from his remarks.
Mr. Atkinson: That is not the case at all. We accept that people should have a reasonable allowance to enable them to be councillors. [Hon. Members: "Spell it out."] I will spell it out. We do not want people making a living as full-time councillors. That is utterly against the ethic of being a councillor. Those of us who have been councillors believed that the officers were the paid hands doing the job and that councillors were responsible for political control and advice. However, we did that as part of a different duty, not as a full-time career. The Government are proposing to make being a councillor a full-time and highly paid job.
Once we introduce high salaries, we increase not only the benefit to the individual but the power of patronage. That is one of the most important issues to come out of these proposals for high salaries.
Labour party groups talk of abolishing whipping, but if one does so but has the power of patronage, one achieves the same thing more effectively. As we have seen, if one becomes one of the chosen few who will get a cabinet job, with the salary and the pension, one also has the opportunity to serve on a national health service trust, with another £19,000 a year--that has happened frequently in the north-east. It is significant that the names of the leading figures in local government in the north-east of England crop up time and again--I am sure that that also happens in other parts of the country.
If one goes through the magic circle into the inner core of the Labour party in local government, one will pick up a salary of £30,000 a year, expenses, trips and, if one is lucky, a place on an NHS trust or on another quango. [Interruption.] Hon. Members think that that is funny, but The Journal also looked into how often leading councillors in local authorities in the north-east went on trips in this country and abroad. It discovered that some councillors incurred costs of £15,000 a year simply going on trips.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I am intrigued by these Tories who are worried about money. I heard the other day that the Short money that they receive has increased by 270 per cent. I have never heard them complain about that. They have been transferring their staff from central office into the parliamentary office to use the Short money and it ought to be investigated. If a local authority did that, it would be surcharged.
Mr. Atkinson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would have liked to respond, but I accept your ruling. There is no connection. The Bill is about local government, local councillors and this insane cabinet and
This is a jolly debate, but when The Journal telephoned authorities to ask how much they spent on trips for their councillors, a large number refused to reply. It is worth mentioning the names of the councils that refused to give any details on conference attendance or expenditure. The Journal lists them as:
The Government and Labour Members are forcing this system of cabinet government on local authorities against their will, in spite of opposition in the country and on the Labour Benches. The Government are in danger of damaging the reputation of local government in consequence. Council tax payers throughout the land have had to pay substantial increases because the Government have cut grant--people pay well over £1,000 for quite ordinary houses in some north country councils--but are seeing councillors helping themselves to vast increases in allowances and to more money than rate payers ever dreamed of. That will be hugely damaging to the reputation of councillors and of local government across the country.
I do not pretend that our amendment will change that, but I hope that we can send a message to the other place. When their lordships consider the measure, I hope that they will reconsider the matter. The reputation of local government and of many decent councillors will be besmirched by the measure.
Mr. Don Foster: Throughout the deliberations of the Standing Committee, I much enjoyed the contributions of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). However, I confess that his performance this evening causes me some confusion. I read carefully the string of amendments and have some difficulty in relating his remarks to their broad thrust--even that of those tabled by his colleagues and himself.
The key issue is relatively simple and narrow. Until this evening, the Government intended, in their proposals for executives, cabinets and scrutiny committees, that only one category of councillors--members of the executive or cabinet--should be eligible for a pension, with the agreement of the particular council. The Government were not minded that such provision should be available for other groups of councillors--such as those serving on scrutiny committees.
In Committee, I argued that that was a bizarre idea. The Government maintained that the scrutiny role was vital, yet councillors who served on scrutiny committees were to be deemed second class compared with those who served on the executive. In an effort to make progress on the matter, two proposals were made this evening. The hon. Member for Hexham suggests that we can even things up by refusing to allow any councillor, in any category, the possibility of a pension. That would be one way of solving the problem.
The amendments tabled by myself and my hon. Friends to provide equality would extend the pensions option to all councillors, subject to the agreement of the council. I was delighted to see that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions himself saw fit to add his signature to two of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) and myself--a clear indication of his support for our suggestions.
The effect of other Government amendments would be much the same as those that we propose, although the wording is marginally different. I could chalk that up as a success, but that is not important. What matters is that the Government recognised an injustice and were prepared to do something about it. I welcome that.
I hope that, when the Under-Secretary replies, she will turn her attention to amendment No. 191--the effects of which appear to be somewhat bizarre and would mean that the National Assembly for Wales would be unable to give advice on some matters. If my interpretation is correct, that would be a retrograde step and we should have difficulty in supporting it. I look forward to an explanation of why the Government think the provision is necessary.