20 August 2002

Pay back time

A couple of months back, I was complaining that the County Council had ruined one of my favourite hobbies (ferreting around in the members' expense claim forms each October) by introducing a system of fixed annual travelling allowances; calculated by multiplying the the number of miles the member had to travel to and from County Hall; the number of meetings they were expected to attend; and the mileage allowance.
This change, according to the Director of Finance's report to the meeting where it was approved, flowed from a recommendation in an independent study by a team from Birmingham University: "Recognising Councillors' worth to their Communities" which formed the basis for the huge pay rises councillors awarded themselves recently.
This fixed allowance arrangement struck me as rather strange because it meant that members, who are not compelled to attend every meeting, would be reimbursed (OED: repay (a person who has expended money)) for journeys that they hadn't made.
Fortunately, on 18 July 2002, the Welsh Assembly rode to my rescue by enacting The Local Authorities (Allowances for Members ...) (Wales) Regulations, which renders the Council's scheme unlawful.
The result is that the Director of Finance has had to write to all the members telling them that the authority will be recouping the travelling allowances paid out, illegally, for May, June, July and August, and enclosing travel expense claim forms to allow them to claim for the journeys actually made during the period.
Naturally, in keeping with the doctrine of Council infallibility, this cock-up is being laid at the door of the Welsh Assembly, which, according to the Director's letter, had given the Council the nod that "it would formulate appropriate regulations and guidance to give effect to the [Birmingham University] study by 22 March 2002."
However, on reading the study, I find that this is not an altogether accurate reflection of the facts.
At page 55 (183) I note that the authors of the Birmingham report say: "The issue of travel and subsistence was not included in the terms of reference of our review."
That didn't stop the team looking into the subject and coming down in favour of fixed allowances, though, as they had no remit, anything they had to say on the matter was mere bagatelle.
In any case, as the report admits at page 56 (192) the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 "do not permit this arrangement [fixed allowances] in any legally enforceable fashion."
Clearly, as the Welsh Assembly has no general powers to override existing UK statutes, there was no way short of an Act of Parliament that these fixed allowances could ever be legal.
Unfortunately, in their rush to get their snouts in the trough, our elected representatives neglected to read the small print.

 

Overpaid overlord.

While reading the members' allowance regulations on the Internet, I came across an interesting section on the amount to be paid to the Deputy Leader (Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse).
At the Council meeting back in February, it was agreed that the Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA) for Cabinet members would be £12,765 and that for the Deputy Leader £15,318.
However, the regulations state that the SRA for the Deputy Leader must not exceed that of a Cabinet member by more than 10%.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, 110% of £12,765 comes to £14,041.50, which means that Squirehouse will have his pay docked by £1,276.50.
Not that I expect the loss of £24 a week will have too much of an impact on the Laird of Angle's way of life.
Incidentally, that particular bungle can't be blamed on the Welsh Assembly, because at the bottom of page 49 of the Birmingham University report it states quite clearly that the Deputy Leader's SRA should be 5-10% above that of a Cabinet member.


Prosperous cheats.

The Birmingham University study, which stretches to 95 pages, paints a very rosy picture of our elected representatives and concludes that the talents of even the bog-standard members are worth £10,000 a year - a figure based on 90 hours a month at the average white collar salary (£12.50 an hour).
This conveniently ignores the fact that people paid at that sort of rate (£500 for a 40 hour week) usually have a GCSE or two, if not a degree.
Indeed, this rate of pay puts councillors, several of whom are complete know-nothings, on a par with the average schoolteacher.
However, in amongst all this myth and fairy tale, I did find one passage that struck a chord.
That was in the section headed "Conference and Seminar Travel and Subsistence Allowances" which reads:
"For travel and subsistence claims for duties and business conducted outside the authority [area] there is much more room for abuse of the system. The review team was quoted on more than one occasion by interviewees of members claiming for such things as first class rail travel to go to conferences, etc, and then travelling second class or not at all.
Another potential abuse quoted to us is a number of councillors going to a conference together in a car and then each claiming first class rail travel costs.
In addition, they might claim the maximum rates for hotels and then stay in a friend's house or a much less expensive B&B.
In fact we were informed that ingenious leaders and senior councillors could, and did in pre-unitary days manipulate these allowances to such an extent that they effectively could live off their expenses."
The word is not "ingenious" but corrupt, and if the Birmingham team think these practices ended with the advent of Unitary authorities in 1996 they are even more naive than I imagined.
As previously reported in this column, there are members in our own County Council who practice similar and even more imaginative fiddles.
It seems to Old Grumpy that a Community Service Order would be a more appropriate reward for such conduct than a whopping pay rise.
The Birmingham University team has a remedy for this sort of corruption.
If, "as a matter of course", the Council bought the rail tickets and booked and paid for the hotel accommodation itself, the report says, it would "lesson (sic) the possibility for the potential abuse of travel and subsistence allowances for duties undertaken outside the authority."
So, the only guaranteed way to stop them dipping their grubby hands in the till is to keep it locked.
The amazing thing is that the Birmingham University recommendations are almost wholly based on evidence taken from elected members about the number of hours they spent on council business.
What moved them to believe what was told to them by people, some of whom, by the reports own admission, can't be trusted not to fiddle their expenses?
Perhaps they hadn't heard the old joke: How can you tell that a politician is lying? Because his lips are moving.


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