MPs have asked councillors to respond to ministerial claims they are “volunteers” who should not receive additional allowances to make up for lost income.
The communities and local government select committee has asked local government for their thoughts after the government dismissed a number of recommendations in their recent Councillors on the Frontline report.
Committee chair Clive Betts (Lab) said: “We want to know what these people think of the government’s response. Please send us your personal evaluation of the government response, and tell us the extent to which it addresses the issues you raised with us. We want to know what you really think.”
The committtee’s report, published in January, hit the headlines after former housing minister and now Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps suggested its calls for additional allowances to compensate for loss of income was equivalent to paying scout leaders for voluntary work.
The comments angered many councillors and, along with proposals to bar councillors from the Local Government Pension Scheme, led to a mutinous letter from Conservative council leaders to the prime minister.
Council leaders also suggested the Department for Communities & Local Government has sent out mixed messages by suggesting councillors are volunteers while also urging them to delete the posts of managers who support them in their work.
In a formal response to the committee report published this month, the Department for Communities & Local Government confirmed the government saw councillors as volunteers.
“The government is quite clear that councillors are and should fundamentally be volunteers, and does not wish to see any move towards professionalising the role through councillors becoming full time salaried staff,” the DCLG said.
Agree to disagree
MPs on the select committee made dozens of recommendations but there were a few in particular which ministers said they could not support
The committee said it was “concerned about the government’s mixed messages on localism” and suggested communities secretary Eric Pickles’ use of terms such as “guided localism” and “muscular localism” suggested “an inability to let go of the reins and embrace the concept fully”. As a result the committee urged the government “to rein in its interventionist instincts” and give councils “real freedom”.
The government response insisted there was “no question of any mixed messages around localism”. However, it added: “Whilst local government is freer of central control, this does not mean ministers, as nationally elected politicians should be denied the right to express their opinion on matters which affect public life, including decisions made by local authorities”. This was the sign of “a healthy democracy”, the government said.
The committee said neighbouring councils should review their structures from time to time and, if there was a case for change, request a boundary review.
The government response said “the priority should be on greater joint working across boundaries and the sharing of back office and front line delivery”. Although ministers would “not stand in the way” of structural change, the councils in question “would need to provide clear evidence of public support,
represent value for money and result in better services for local people”.
The committee expressed concern about the time commitment involved in being a councillor and suggested DCLG examine how it could encourage employers to support staff who are councillors, including a financial incentive, in the same way as the Ministry of Defence has for reservists.
The government response said the situation of councillors are reservists “are very different situations” and said relations with employers were “a matter better resolved locally”.
The committee said councillor allowances should be set by independent local bodies, instead of the existing panels which can only make recommendations, and MPs points out it was “inconsistent” for councillors to be denied the same option available for MPs.
The government said decisions about pay should not “be taken out of the hands of local authorities who are accountable for their decision to their local electorate”.
The committee recommended councillor allowances in future include a capped element to compensate for lost income in the belief that this could increase the number of younger councillors.
The government said “a councillor is a voluntary public service and not a salaried job”. Councillors were already compensated for loss of earnings by their allowances, the government added.