This summary investigates the impact on councillors and their employers of the present arrangements for releasing people for council duties. It presents the key findings of two research surveys, one with councillors and the other with their employers, and discusses some issues arising from these.
The research surveys were carried out by telephone by Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR), between May and August 1997. Councillors in county, district, metropolitan, London borough and English and Welsh unitary authorities were randomly selected from council lists, contacted by telephone and screened to establish whether they were employed. Employed councillors were then interviewed, and those who took time off work were asked to provide their employer details so that a further interview could be carried out. Interviews were completed with 1,849 councillors and 977 employers.
The survey of councillors
At the time of the survey, the majority (56 per cent) of employed councillors were members of the Labour Party; 25 per cent were Liberal Democrats; 13 per cent were Conservatives and 7 per cent were Independents or members of other parties. Seventy-three per cent of employed councillors were male. The average age was 47 years.
Compared with the total working population, a higher proportion of councillors were classified as managers, administrators or professionals and a considerably lower proportion were classified as having craft, service, sales and machine occupations.
Councillors were more likely to be employed in the public sector (44 per cent of the sample compared with 25 per cent in GB). They were least likely to be found in wholesale/retail or manufacturing establishments.
Employed councillors worked for an average of 39 hours per week, which was about the same as the average for the working population as a whole. Those who worked full-time (83 per cent of the total) worked for an average of about 44 hours per week. The minority who worked part-time were more likely to be older, female and to work in relatively junior occupations; they worked for an average of about 19 hours per week.
The average amount of time employed councillors spent on their duties was about 16 hours per week. Those serving on county, metropolitan and English and Welsh unitary councils spent about 20 hours per week on council duties, on average, while those serving on London borough and district councils spent less time on their duties (about 17 hours and 13 hours per week respectively). Most councillors had other public duties in addition to their council work, typically school or college governorships (held by 61 per cent).
County councillors mostly had their meetings during the day whereas district, metropolitan and London borough councillors mostly had their meetings at other times. Meetings for members of English and Welsh unitary councils were evenly divided between the day and evenings.
Most employed councillors (63 per cent) used part of their holiday allocation to carry out their council duties; those who did so used about 8 days per year on average.
Eighty per cent of employed councillors took time off work, including time which was subsequently made up, in order to carry out their council duties. Those who didn't take any time off generally had no need to because their working hours were flexible, they worked part-time or their council meetings were held in the evening. Hardly any stated that their employer did not allow them to.
A little over half (55 per cent) of employed councillors had to check with their employer on each occasion they wished to take time off; 17 per cent only had to agree arrangements from time to time and 28 per cent did not have to agree them at all. However, permission for time off was rarely refused. Councillors who were managers, administrators or professionals enjoyed considerably greater freedom to determine what time they took off.
Councillors made up a large proportion of the time they took off: 42 per cent made it all up, 30 per cent made some of it up and only 28 per cent made none of it up. Councillors who held senior positions at work, or worked at establishments which employed small numbers of staff (such as retail establishments), were most likely to make time up.
The average amount of time taken off and not made up (by those councillors who did not make up all their time off) was about 4 hours per week. Most councillors received full pay for the small proportion of time off which was not made up.
Employed councillors generally gained greater satisfaction from their council duties than from their jobs. This finding varied according to occupation group, with managers, administrators and professional people expressing roughly equal levels of satisfaction with their duties and work, while those in craft, service, sales and machine occupations overwhelmingly preferred their duties.
Seventy-seven per cent of employed councillors stated that they sometimes found it difficult to fit their council duties in with their work or had ever missed a council meeting because of their job. Thirty-eight per cent said that fitting in duties with work was often a problem but only 16 per cent said that they often missed meetings for this reason.
The survey of employers
Most employers (59 per cent) had a formal, time-off policy for councillors, particularly those in the public sector and in larger establishments (two overlapping groups). The great majority of these employers notified their staff of the time off policy, usually in the terms and conditions of employment or the staff handbook
Almost eight in ten employers of councillors (79 per cent) were not familiar with the Employment Rights Act, 1996 (which states that councillor employees should be given 'reasonable' time off to perform their council duties).
Over half the employers (54 per cent) did not set a limit on time off for council duties. When time off was limited, the limit was generally set at about 3.2 hours a week - approximately half a day. That over half the employers allowed unlimited time off suggests that, for some at least, the conflict between their employee's council and work duties was not a major problem.
Having a councillor employee involved both costs and other problems for some employers. Costs were mentioned by 28 per cent of employers, and generally involved staff costs. Other problems were mentioned by 42 per cent and focused mainly on the need for other staff to work harder and on problems for team work.
A majority of employers acknowledged that there were benefits in having a councillor on their staff (59 per cent). Benefits accrued mainly from the increased knowledge of local issues and the political awareness brought to the organisation by the councillor. The benefits were most often acknowledged among public sector employers, those with more than one councillor on the staff, and when the councillor was a senior member of staff.
It was a minority - though a substantial one, at 22 per cent - who said that employing a councillor was detrimental to their organisation. In these cases, the councillor's - often unpredictable - absences caused additional burden to be placed on other staff members who had to 'cover'.
Decisions made by employers about 'reasonable' time off for councillors to carry out their duties were influenced primarily by the need to get the work done. Account was also taken of the amount of time off needed, and how often, and the availability of other staff to 'cover' for the councillor.
Employers were fairly evenly divided about whether the method of paying councillors should be changed, and the payments made directly to the employer. Significantly fewer (37 per cent) thought it would be better to pay councillors a full-time salary.
Most employers felt that current practice served them well: substantial majorities believed that it was possible to fit council duties around work; that being a councillor improved job skills; and that the chances of being employed would not be affected if a candidate was a councillor.
Most employers thought that paying allowances directly to them rather than to the councillor would make no difference either to the likelihood of recruiting councillors to their staff, or to the amount of time off they would allow for council duties.
Overall, then, most employed councillors do not experience great difficulties, and generally a workable balance is struck between the demands of council duties and those of the employer. As only a small proportion of a councillor's time is taken from working hours, such costs as are incurred tend to be borne by the individual councillor. This accords entirely with the tradition of lay voluntary service on which Britain's local public life has historically been based.
For their part, employers take on some cost and inconvenience in having councillor employees and claim some benefit for themselves. Many of them have formal policies and there appear to be few disputes between them and their councillor employees. The relative absence of conflict owes much to British employment law, which provides for a high degree of flexibility in taking into account the needs of both the employer and the local authority. The emphasis is placed on achieving a fair balance.
In assessing these costs and benefits, it is important to recognise that many working councillors derive more satisfaction from their council duties than they do from their employment. This is not a new finding: the Maud committee in 1965 found that roughly a third of all employed councillors found council work more satisfying than their occupation, with similar proportions having the contrary experience or finding both equally satisfying. In 1997 the proportions are similar, and again it is manual workers who derive the greater comparative satisfaction from council service.
The larger problem, however, remains. Councils are not particularly representative of the communities they serve. Managerial and professional grades are considerably over-represented, and there has been a steady rise in the proportion of councillors who are retired, who now comprise more than a third of the whole. The problem, then, is to attract to council service that wider range of people who, at present, show little inclination to offer themselves for election. Evidence from the 1994 British Social Attitudes module commissioned by the Department of the Environment showed that as many as 93 per cent of those interviewed had never considered seeking election, a figure comparable with that found in the 1965 survey for the Maud Committee.
Among the more important reasons for people not seeking to become councillors are lack of confidence to play the councillor's role, insufficient time, and having not ever contemplated seeking election. Probably there are deeper reasons for this indifference: a lack of interest in local politics and public affairs; the low standing and salience of local government; cultural change that devalues public service; the general public unwillingness to involve themselves in local affairs; and a lack of strong attachment to the localities in which many people live. All play a part.
So what can be done to make council service more attractive? Reversing the long term decline in the standing of local government and enhancing public participation is a long term project. There is a more immediate prospect of changing the way local authorities operate, in particular to reduce time demands on councillors. At present, these are very considerable, and a reduction might make it possible for a wider range of people than at present to consider serving on their local council.
Positions of real responsibility - leaders and committee chairs - ,however, require a substantial time commitment which cannot realistically be reduced. Current proposals being entertained to create a stronger, more decisive, executive role, can only shift a greater burden of responsibility on to the shoulders of a smaller number of councillors. As this report shows, a distinction between councillors, or councillors and aldermen, is common in many European countries where a two (or even three) tier system effectively exists. In such countries those elected members who hold executive responsibility frequently do so on a full time basis. A degree of professionalisation for some is, then, a natural corollary of a system in which the majority of councillors perform a mainly representative role, one which can be more easily combined with a full private and professional life.
The full survey, price£30, is available from the DETR Publications Sales Centre, Unit 8, Goldthorpe Industrial Estate, Goldthorpe, Rotherham S63 9BL tel: 01709 891318 fax: 01709 881673