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A question of cash; Parliament would do well to follow standards set in monitoring councillors' allowances, says Chris Game.

Byline: Chris Game

Like Speaker Michael Martin in his embarrassingly misjudged apology to the nation, I didn't really get it.

Neither of us could quite see the moral hysteria of the mob over recent days constituting the democratic disaster, the crisis for our whole political system, that commentators insisted it was.

At that point, however, we did part company. The Speaker, sadly, didn't seem to get any of it at all. My problem was one of interpretation.

Today, we have more people talking more passionately about politics and political institutions than almost ever before, certainly more than during normal election campaigns.

More people can name their MP. Everyone has political views, and most are keen to air them. We all know when the European elections are and many are already deciding not whether, but how, to vote.

Local constituency party members are seizing control of MPs' selection, de-selection and reselection from their national party machines. There is serious debate about the appropriate size of Parliament, the electoral system, the Prime Minister's right to decide election dates, the recall of MPs by petitions and referendums, and, surely, some comprehensible way of conducting Commons business that doesn't involve the farce of everyone calling everyone else 'Honourable'.

For years, I have joined and supported bodies like the Electoral Reform Society, the Hansard Society, Make Votes Count and Unlock Democracy. Yet just two weeks of chequebook journalism by the Daily Telegraph have created a greater national hunger for radical political change than such worthy reformers ever dared dream about.

So, if this is disaster, hurray! It's a disaster for our modern-day over-stuffed Parliament, for some of this generation of over-stuffing parliamentarians and, of course - reputationally, though hardly financially - for the Speaker himself.

There may indeed be a crisis in our parliamentary politics but for the rest of us, at the risk of sounding like a T-shirt slogan, in every crisis there's a reform opportunity.

Unfortunately, all disasters do have their innocent victims. Most obvious here are the many MPs who actually did follow the rules and treated allowances not as a salary top-up, but as expenses "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred" in performing their parliamentary duties and who are now suffering the same obloquy as their dishonourable colleagues.

Those most deserving of sympathy, though, must be the county councillors seeking election or re-election on June 4 in Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

If they are venturing out canvassing at all, they face the near-impossible task of explaining to a deeply cynical electorate that councillors' remuneration and allowances could hardly be more different from those of MPs.

Like so much of local government, the system for administering councillors' allowances is not widely understood by the public.

That is a pity, because, unlike the parliamentary pigs' trough, it seems generally fair, transparent, with much to commend it and, above all, incorporating a vital message for all concerned.

All councils are required to establish and maintain an Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) to keep the council's allowances scheme under review and make recommendations on the amounts to be paid. Birmingham has a sevenmember IRP, chaired currently by one of four citizen representatives.

There are two main allowances. A flatrate basic allowance is payable to all councillors in recognition of their time commitments in attending council and committee meetings, dealing with constituents, meeting with local organisations and representing the council on outside bodies.

Birmingham's IRP reckons the core time needed to undertake these duties expected of all city councillors is 26 hours or three days a week, although they acknowledge that, in representing the largest electorates in the country, even councillors in full-time work in fact spend more time than this; those with no job spend a great deal more.

Most of our councillors, then, already put in more hours than are recognised in the basic allowance and that is before the introduction of the public service discount - an estimable concept and one with particular significance in the present context..

Many MPs seem simply to have forgotten that they are public servants being paid out of public money.

Even their pathetic comparisons of their expenses scams with those of newspaper journalists imply that the distinction between public and privatesector employment is immaterial to them.

Councillors, by contrast, have a public service discount (PSD) built into the actual calculation of their basic allowance - a recognition that a proportion of a councillor's core workload should be seen as voluntary service and therefore not remunerated.

Birmingham's PSD, recommended by the IRP, is a fairly typical 25 per cent, although the range extends to at least 50 per cent.

Which, as it happens, is precisely the proportion of her EUR90,000 salary being sacrificed by Lithuania's recently-elected first female President, Dalia Grybauskaite, as her contribution to her country's economic recovery.

Both examples ought to give some MPs pause for thought.

To calculate the basic allowance, councillors' three days a week (156 days a year) are thus discounted by 25 per cent down to 117 days.

Put another way, we get three months a year of our councillors' time free of charge. The 117 days are then paid at the rate of the average non-manual male wage for the metropolitan West Midlands, giving a basic allowance this year of pounds 15,950, or about two-thirds of the average graduate starting salary.

Birmingham's is the highest basic allowance in England and about double the overall average. But that average includes some 200, often relatively small, district councils with ward electorates of around 3,000, compared to Birmingham's 18,000 - including, of course, some of the most socially deprived wards in the country with all their attendant problems.

Councillors with significant official responsibilities, defined by Birmingham's IRP as requiring a time commitment of at least two days a week, receive an additional special responsibility allowance (SRA).

Council leader Mike Whitby, for example, receives an SRA of pounds 54,850, his deputy Paul Tilsley pounds 41,138, cabinet members get pounds 30,716 and Alistair Dow, chairman of the important co-ordinating overview and scrutiny Committee, gets pounds 21,501.

For the respective responsibilities involved, certainly by comparison with those of backbench MPs, none of these sums strike me as obscenely excessive.

Like the basic allowance, they are of course subject to tax and National Insurance.

Because of the very different constituencies they serve and their generally lighter workloads, county councillors' allowances are mostly lower than those of big-city councillors.

That would enable them to tell potential voters, if they ever get the chance, that their county council's total outlay on members' expenses almost certainly costs them less personally than does their MP.

As you'll have gathered, I like the public service discount and I've another one to suggest. Why not discount the number of MPs and, at the same time, whatever new expenses system they come up with, their total cost? In area, the United Kingdom is the 79th-largest country in the world. Even by population, we're only the 22ndlargest, but 60 per cent of countries manage with just one parliamentary chamber.

Yet our 646 MPs make the House of Commons the world's fourth-largest parliamentary chamber - behind the rather extraordinary cases of China, North Korea and our own 726-member House of Lords.

It can't be the workload, because, having just returned from a 17-day Easter recess, MPs are now off for another ten days over Whitsun - part of 143 days' recess during the current Parliamentary session.

I propose, therefore, a public service discount of about 30 per cent of MPs, giving us a total of roughly 450 - still a little larger than the United States' House of Representatives.

Would we, I wonder, feel so very undergoverned? Chris Game is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham Tomorrow: How West Midlands businesses can benefit from the 2012 OlympicsOur 646 MPs make the House of Commons the world's fourth-largest parliamentary chamber - behind the rather extraordinary cases of China, North Korea and our own 726-member House of Lords
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 26, 2009
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