Thursday, 25 June 2009

Expenses and outside interests

I think it is important that all politicians - whether they are councillors like myself, MPs, MEPs or members of the House of Lords - are open and honest about their pay and expenses. It was the Liberal Democrats whose constant campaigning has eventually led to the publication and cleaning up (we hope) of the system of MPs expenses.

Each year, Cornwall Council publishes a list of the expenses claimed by all of its members. I'm going to publish my expenses claims and any declarations of interest on a monthly basis.

To set things in context:

All councillors receive a basic allowance of £11,700 per year. This is intended to compensate us for the time we spend on our duties - talking to constituents, meeting with organisations and attending council meetings. We do not receive any additional sums for attending Council or committee meetings and we also pay for our own postage etc.

In addition, councillors may claim for travel costs (petrol, train travel or whatever) for attending meetings at County Hall. Car mileage is paid at a fixed cost of 50p per mile.

We also receive free lunches if we are working at County Hall during lunchtime and subsistence payments if working away from home on council business for more than certain hours.

Councillors who hold specific posts are entitled to receive additional sums which are known as special responsibility allowances (SRA). In the main, the people receiving these will be the Leader, cabinet members, the Chair and Vice Chair and those who chair committees. I do not hold any such positions and so do not receive an SRA.

Finally, councillors are required to declare their interests and any hospitality received valued at above £25. This is to ensure that the decisions they take are open and honest. Where they or their family might be seen to have a financial interest in the outcome of a decision (known as a prejudicial interest) then they are not allowed to be present for that debate or vote.

To date I have not received any gifts or hospitality valued above £25. The only gift of any kind I have received has been a diary containing the dates of council meetings - and all councillors have received the same.

As I've mentioned in the 'About Me' section on the right, my day job is as the Fundraising Manager for a national cancer charity. My patch covers Plymouth, North Devon and the Tamar Valley - and therefore includes the towns of Launceston, Saltash and Torpoint. I'm not sure that this would ever bring about a conflict of interest but you can be sure that I will declare this if there is the slightest chance that it might as I do not want to cause any embarrassment to my employer (which is, of course, politically neutral), the Liberal Democrats or the Council.

I also continue to receive some work as a freelance photographer - which used to be my full-time role.

Paula Keaveney has a post on her blog about whether councillors should be full-time or not. This is clearly a hot topic in local government circles. My own belief is that it depends. I certainly think that councils should be as representative as possible and being elected should not be restricted to the retired or wealthy.

I am disappointed that the age profile of Cornwall Council is so old and male. I think that we Lib Dems have a much better profile - I am the oldest of the three Launceston councillors at 39. Our ranks include a 21 year old and we have a fairly good gender balance (14 out of 38 Lib Dems and seven of our 11 Shadow Cabinet are women).

In order to recruit a representative balance, councils need to provide allowances to members. Our role is meant to be about 25 hours per week. On balance I think that £11,700 is a fair amount to pay members for such a commitment. Given the huge number of councillors (in my view 123 is far too many), it would be unreasonable to pay full time wages (and consequently expect full-time working). However, I do think that those who receive the higher SRAs - the Leader and Cabinet and the Chairman - should be working full-time. If they fail to put in the hours then they will not be doing their job properly. That doesn't mean 9-5 every day as there will be evening and weekend work. But it does mean a commitment of at least 37 hours a week on the work for which they get an SRA.

When I worked for Southwark Council, those on the top SRAs were expected to work full-time for the Council. Any who had an outside job would entitled to only a proportion of their SRA. I hope that Cornwall Council will have a similar system.

Perhaps equally as important is the timing of meetings. Anyone who works full-time will have difficulty in attending lots of daytime meetings unless they have a very understanding employer. I appreciate that travelling to Truro can be a long distance, but evening meetings would, in my opinion, be a better option for most committees and encourage many more younger people to stand for election.

1 comment:

fettler said...

Re: meetings at County Hall, Truro: Time to get rid of that white elephant and move all the highly paid staff out closer to their "clients"? Could result in a fairer portion of salary derived expenditure ending up out of Truro? After all what proportion of Cornwall's income is spent on salaries (used to be about 80%) and how much of that ends up where it was collected from? Lucky old Truro.