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The bad news they tried to bury? Councillors' pensions; The Local Government Pension Scheme will be closed to councillors from next year. Chris Game looks at a controversial perk with a chequered history... beginning on 9/11.

Byline: Chris Game

There's an album track by the heavy metal band, Skyclad, inspired by the most infamous civil service email ever - the 'good day to bury bad news' message by Jo Moore, special adviser to Local Government Minister, Stephen Byers, at 2.55pm on September 11, 2001, immediately after the hijacked jets crashed into New York's World Trade Center.

The title is actually 'A Good Day for to Bury Bad News' - grammatically awful, but instantly recognisable. Every likely listener knows in advance - before all the stuff about the West waking up to a terror attack, but having the muscle to give it all back - that it's about 9/11 and Jo Moore's email.

She created a modern-day catchphrase - yet without ever typing those words. What she in fact sent was less catchy, but much more intriguing: "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' pensions?" Yes, so traumatised was the poor woman that the most embarrassing thing she imagined New Labour was up to was contemplating pensions for councillors.

And she even got that wrong. Yes, there was a consultation paper on councillors' pensions, but it would appear the following day anyway, and was intended by ministers to be good, not bad, news - a way of making council service seem more attractive and so assisting councillor recruitment.

The consultation paper proposed that, if councils' independent remuneration panels recommended, senior councillors - executive members and chairs of overview and scrutiny committees - would be entitled to join council employees' Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).

Given the current controversy on the subject, this point is worth emphasising: it was definitely not Labour's initial intention to extend the acknowledgedly generous LGPS to all councillors, for most of whom, the paper suggested, the Government's stakeholder pension scheme would be more appropriate.

The consultation, however, changed all that. The Local Government Association's pensions committee opposed in principle any differentiation of councillors, seeing it as discriminatory and unhelpful to the cause of attracting and retaining councillors.

It wanted the LGPS open to all councillors, as did the Labour-run Birmingham city council in its consultation response.

Somewhat to their surprise, however, they were also advised by the official Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority that, for pension law purposes, all councillors should indeed be treated as employees, and therefore entitled to join the LGPS.

Which meant that if, as proposed, most councillors were ruled ineligible for the LGPS, they would also lose access to stakeholder pensions, and could take legal action against ministers for introducing discriminatory legislation. Only at this later point did ministers realise that their strictly limited-scale sweetener was turning into something approaching Cadbury World.

Politically, though, it was too late to turn back. So when the pension regulations were introduced in 2003, the discretion exercised by councils' remuneration panels applied to all councillors. Birmingham's panel exercised theirs straightaway. A national review promised in 2008, when the rest of the LGPS was revised, never happened, and so that's essentially where we are today.

The LGPS may or may not be 'goldplated', as critics regularly suggest, but it's undeniably attractive, and popular. It's a career-average scheme, with indexlinked benefits based on years in the scheme and average pay over those years, in basic and special responsibility allowances.

Contributions are six per cent of allowances, the other roughly two-thirds of the scheme's cost being paid by the council. Additional benefits include a tax-free lump sum on retirement at 70, optional earlier retirement, plus the security of all this being changeable only by Act of Parliament.

The TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) specialises in publicising these kinds of data, and it found that in 2010/11 over 4,500 or one in five UK councillors were enrolled on the LGPS - at an estimated annual cost of PS7 million.

In fact, the 4,500 were drawn from only about 240 participating councils. Most nonparticipants are smaller shire districts, but plenty of first-tier and unitary councils have also chosen not to extend their LGP schemes to councillors, including, in the West Midlands, Coventry and, almost completely, Worcestershire County Council.

By contrast, nearly 90 per cent of Warwickshire members were signed up, 54 out of 120 in Birmingham, 28 in Sandwell, 22 in Solihull, 19 in Dudley, and 12 each in Walsall and Wolverhampton.

But not for much longer.

Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis's Christmas message to councillors was that from April 2014 they would no longer be eligible to join or accrue further benefits from the LGPS - none of them, not even leaders and executive members, as originally proposed.

It's a ministerial, not party, policy.

Conservative councillors and leaders have been as outraged as their Labour counterparts, most having already seen, as in Birmingham, their allowances cut or frozen for the past three years. Lewis, however, insists that this government takes "a fundamentally different view to the last administration. We do not believe taxpayer-funded pensions are justified".

Rather, they are "a corrosive influence on local democracy, blurring the distinction between council staff and councillors. Councillors are volunteers undertaking public service; they are not professional, full-time politicians, nor should they be encouraged to become so".

If councillors, executive or non-executive, work full-time hours, as a majority of Birmingham members have over the years, that's their choice, as it is for other, though unpaid, volunteers - like scout troop leaders, the interesting comparison used by Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps, on the BBC's Today programme.

So, just in case it crossed their avaricious little minds, don't even think of it: there's "absolutely no case for increasing councillor allowances to compensate" for lost pensions.

It was allowances that prompted Shapps' remark.

He was asked about a Commons allparty committee report that identified three key barriers to people becoming and remaining councillors: the time involved, the unsupportive view taken by many employers, and the levels of allowances: "high enough to offend the public, but not high enough to encourage any sane person to give up their career and earning capacity to take it on".

Shapps wasn't as succinct as Catherine Tate, but the sentiment was identical: "Am I bovvered? Do I look bovvered?" Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham MP's pay: Page 32-33

She even got that wrong... it was intended by ministers to be good, not bad, news ''


Unfortunate: Jo Moore's infamous email has echoed down the years

As of 2014 councillors will no longer be eligible to join or accrue benefits from the LGPS - not even leaders and executive members, as originally proposed
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 17, 2013
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