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LAW & ADMINISTRATION: A MEASURE OF RESPONSIBILITY - ASSESSING KENT MEMBERS' ALLOWANCES

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Earlier this year Kent CC reviewed its scheme of members' allowances by taking advice from an independent panel. ...
Earlier this year Kent CC reviewed its scheme of members' allowances by taking advice from an independent panel.

Kent was due to be reorganised on 1 April. A scheme had to be accepted by most of the new council's 84 members, of whichever party, and also be endorsed by the panel.

The three party groups agreed to begin with inter-party discussions using information from Camden LBC's panel to try to agree a single proposal. This could then be put to the panel for comment.

A main proposal was put forward by the two largest parties and an alternative by the Liberal Democrats. Both proposed substantial increases.

During these internal discussions, officers were trying to constitute the panel. Other councils have tried to broadly represent their community on the panel. Kent's approach was simply to ask each political group to nominate one person from outside the council.

Theoretical objections to this process are obvious but, Kent culture being what it is, the panel was made up of three very independent minded and astute individuals.

When it came to calculating allowances, two approaches seemed common. The first was to make comparisons with bodies such as health authorities and with other panels and councils. The second was to follow the approach advocated by the local authority associations in 1995. This involved calculating how many hours members in particular posts were likely to spend on council duties then using an hourly rate linked to a percentage of the national average wage to arrive at an annual allowance.

The Kent discussions had been based on the comparative principle. The council carried out a survey of members' time to help the panel, but the results were difficult to interpret. The variations in the hours worked by members with similar commitments were remarkable.

The three parties agreed posts to receive special responsibility allowances. This included all the usual committee and sub-committee chairmen posts but also what Kent terms shadow chairmen - the spokesman on each committee of the larger of the two minority opposition parties - and the spokesmen of the smaller minority party.

The available sum of special responsibility allowances was to be divided between these three groups in proportion to the number of seats each party held. There was also agreement that the two opposition posts on any committee should receive no more than 80% of the sum going to the majority party posts. This is possibly a unique feature of the scheme and gave the panel a structure to work with which could easily be balanced with an overall total expenditure.

The panel started by considering the total expenditure on member allowances. The internal party exercise had set itself a maximum figure of 0.001% of the council's total expenditure, currently just over£1 billion. This was around a threefold increase on the existing allowances scheme.

The panel - on what they freely admitted was not a very scientific basis - agreed the approach but thought the increase too high and pegged the total budget at£660,000.

The most difficult issue was attendance allowance. Most panel reports have recommended this be abolished, arguing that it biases members' remuneration towards meeting in committee, whereas modern local government should be evolving towards members behaving in a much greater variety of ways.

The internal party discussions had started from this principle but had concluded that attendance allowance should be retained. The main argument was that, with current structures, committee work remains the major focus for most members. It was felt by the opposition parties and many majority backbenchers to be their key way of influencing decision making. Members realised their committee activities were severely affected by their other commitments and that some did considerably more work on committees than others. The view was that only attendance allowance could fairly reflect this disparity of commitment and activity.

The panel was not particularly impressed by this argument. Given the support for it, however, they conceded the retention of the allowance but with no increase. The panel also required a review at the next county election.

All three parties had agreed on the need for a significant increase in the standard basic allowance. The panel accepted this and would have liked to fund it partly from the abolition of attendance allowance. The budgetary cap and the recommendation on special responsibility allowances eventually led to a figure of£3,000.

The panel reached these conclusions and agreed a report in three meetings of no more than two hours each. During that period there was a policy of total non-communication between the panel and the political groups.

The final report appeared just under two weeks before the inaugural meeting of the reorganised council on 2 April. The two majority groups immediately accepted it in full.

The Liberal Democrats did not dissent from its basic recommendations but were still concerned at the scale of increase proposed. They suggested the increases should be phased over the lifetime of the current council rather than being introduced all at once. That amendment was lost in the full council meeting and the entire package has now been introduced.

Some members concluded from the experience that allowances should be set nationally by the government. While there is certainly merit in a more coherent national approach, Kent's experience illustrates the difficulty in setting national figures that cannot take account of the very different demands on members both within a council and between councils.

The introduction of an independent element into the assessment of member allowances seems worthwhile. What needs to be avoided is the present situation with numerous panels across the country repeating the same exercise. Another element to a national approach would therefore be much more comprehensive collation and publication of data on allowances.

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