In recent years a lot of limelight has been thrown on MPs expenses, often and sadly pointing to alleged abuses. Until fellow local blogger, Matthew Dent, recently dealt with the subject in his blog, the matter of what local councilors receive in terms of recompense has been given scant attention, and while it is a much less important subject, compared with how they perform their office and serve residents, it is something worth pondering in the light of a recent discussions in Council and Matt’s comments. When it comes to who said what and whether right or not to do so, I won’t be commenting as I don’t need to. Many of Matt’s comments I agree with, but not all. But I agree that the right decision was reached in the end.
I like it that an independent entity decide what money is allocated, and to who, and I like it even more that the councilors decided not to take the increases recommended, as much out of solidarity with council workers that in these days of austerity won’t receiving a comparable increase. As I understand it, while MPs receive a salary and (generous) expenses plus anything else they may get e.g. as a result of being a government minister, councilors receive an allowance that more or less covers all they do, with (very) minor perks and extra money if they do jobs like being a member of the Cabinet or as chair of one from a selection of the many committees. On the face of it receiving circa £8K (the basic all councilors receive) for attending a few meetings in the year is a nice earner and good work if you can get it, but the work of a Councillor is considerably much more than this. There are of course variations as to how hard Councillors work and how much they contribute but the system as it stands does not (and almost certainly cannot) make that distinction when doling out money – that prerogative is with the electorate.
If I were to do a time and motion study on what many councilors do, I would probably have to conclude they earn way below the minimum wage and when done well the work they do is very important. The days when councilors were mainly drawn from the successful and relatively prosperous ranks of businessmen and professionals, who could well afford to attend to councilor duties, and may have been encouraged to do so by their employers if working, are long gone and for some, maybe many, being a councilor entails considerable sacrifice and often significant reduction in income, and I would like to think most go into it primarily as a means to serve the community. If anything, they should be better remunerated but always there is need to balance all sorts of factors and on balance I think they have got it right.
This got me thinking about when I got involved in full time community work around the turn of the millennium. I had for the previous twelve years been running my own computer consultancy business and the considerable reduction in work derived income was partly compensated by my savings and other income streams from my earlier careers. Given my aim was to make a difference and do something I felt needed to be done, and I could do it, I did not bother overmuch about income. This is just as well as I found myself increasing taking up unpaid roles and these days practically everything I do for the community is unpaid. If I have a gripe, but I have no intention to name names, it is that those who knew better and had the power were quite content for the status quo to continue knowing full well that I will carry on regardless doing something I care about. But it has made me wary, such that when I was talking to a computer whizz kid a few days back, soon to go to university, I counseled him to use his marketable skills to earn good money and use the money earned to support himself as a community activist.
It has often struck me that there is a grey area between that of voluntary and paid workers. Volunteers do what they do for free and paid persons do it for financial reward. No problem with that in principle providing both are looked after. In the Council equivalent, there is what is euphemistically known as members (the councillors) and officers (paid workers). The roles are different and in principle the officers do the bidding of the members, although fans of the TV sitcom “Yes Minister” might see this as a charade. But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that BOTH work and BOTH are needed to achieve the hoped for good outcomes. While it is true that councillors are volunteers insofar they volunteer to do what they do (although not quite for free), it is also a good part of their livelihood and accordingly they should be recompensed. The same principle applies to those working in voluntary organisations who go far beyond filling in some slot or other in a charitable enterprise. They make things happen and often go far beyond the call of duty. In our society, we too often take such people for granted.
Also around the turn of the millennium, I wrote a book, titled “Coleman Street’s Children”. It coincided with the centenary of the church I have been part of for most of my life – Coleman Street Chapel. In my research I got to interview the great grandson of the founder. In his reflections he made mention that the founder’s four sons were all active in the oversight of the church (the church was linked to the Plymouth Brethren and PBs have tended not to support paid ministers but rather give money to mission). They were also partners in a successful building construction business in the early part of the twentieth century. Because they were free to do so, they gave between them a full weeks work equivalent for one person for church matters as and when the need arose. Somehow, I suspect the days we live in tend not to allow for this and it is right to reimburse those who serve, and serve well, if we possibly can. Both in the case of lay minister and councilor the message is the same: “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treads out the grain. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” 1Timothy 5:18.