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Playing to the crowd

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The pay of council chief executives made the front pages of the nationals again yesterday - and provoked much anger amongst many in local government.

The article, based on examination of council accounts by the Telegraph’s data team and backed by an online database of more than 150 chief executives’ pay details, has proven extremely controversial and was described by the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives as “error-strewn and grossly misleading”.

The bone of contention was the Telegraph’s decision to include all payments to chief executives covering items such as expenses, pension payments and returning officer fees.

This approach meant chief executives such as Essex CC Joanna Killian and Cornwall Council Kevin Lavery who ‘led from the front’ and took a pay cut, as strongly recommended by ministers time and time again, could be pilloried for having taken home more in 2010-11 than they had the year before. In the case of Ms Killian the blame lay with a performance-related bonus payment while Mr Lavery had received relocation fees when he moved from the north-east to the south-west.

Although there are some problems with the Telegraph’s sums - Harry Phibbs at Conservative Home has flagged up some, other specific queries and rebuttals I have included as notes to a PDF version of the article below - I think the person who comes out worst in this is not chief executives earning hundreds of thousands of pounds or journalists writing crowd-pleasing articles, but local government minister Grant Shapps.

Ever the voice of reason, Mr Shapps was apparently on holiday when the Telegraph contacted him for some analysis and comment on their research. However, the public-spirited local government minister took the time out from relaxing to provide the following quote:

“It is astonishing that it appears chief executives are finding elaborate ways to hike their pay through the back door.

“A culture of bumper pay and perks has no place in local government especially during these tough times across the public sector. Cutting pay is one thing chief executives can do to demonstrate a personal commitment to protecting the front line. I urge them to do the right thing and lead from the front.”

With councils and professional bodies spitting feathers about both the Telegraph’s methodology and the minister’s contribution to the article, I called the Department for Communities and Local Government to set up a phone chat with Mr Shapps so he could respond to the criticisms and rebuttals.

I was told, however, that he was still on holiday and would not be taking time out to speak to me as he had for the Telegraph.

So far, so expected.

However, the press officer was keen to point out that “his quote said ‘it appears that’…because it was Telegraph research”, the inference being that he didn’t really know what was in there so he covered his back with a qualification straight out of the journalist’s Handbook of Fudge.

Of course, it is unfair to pick on Mr Shapps alone as this is the last in a long line of examples of DCLG ministers, from the most senior down the ranks, putting their name to things that turn out to be complete bobbins.

A couple of months it was communities secretary Eric Pickles putting his name to a press release claiming local government could save £50bn through better procurement, a claim admirably pulled apart by the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre.

Not long before local government minister Bob Neill criticised non-jobs in a Daily Telegraph piece based on spurious figures which DCLG’s press office denied providing, but which an entirely reliable source has informed me did come from someone in the department.

‘Minister grabs headline’ is hardly headline worthy, but the depressing thing is that people lap it up. Look at the Telegraph’s most recent chief executive’s pay and you’ll see, in 24 hours, it was posted directly to Twitter 193 times and to Facebook 535 times. The comments both on the Telegraph’s story, and the versions produced by local papers, show readers coughing on their cornflakes at the thought of someone being paid considerably less than their equivalent in the private sector and, heaven help us, being rewarded for good performance or doubling their workload.

And as people lap these stories up, they come to view local government officers as ‘fat cat bureaucrats’ intent on bleeding the state dry for their own advantage when, really, they’d be far better off if they left the sector.

Sadly, the abuse is not always limited to online forums, as former South Somerset DC chief executive Phil Dolan discovered when he was verbally abused, causing him to flee his own home, following a Telegraph story which - naturally - came with a suitably incendiary comment from a DCLG minister.

Perhaps this is DCLG’s way of instilling fear in public sector workers, as advocated by policy minister Oliver Letwin. In which case: bravo ministers, bravo.


The Telegraph’s article - and the sector’s response

If you have trouble reading this document click here

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  • Anonymous

    Spot on Ruth...My own Council Chief Exec's salary should have been shown as static but appears as an increase because of employer contribuions. The Telegraph really is the worst tabloid.

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