Scottish councillors should be paid more

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'Saltire' / Julien Ortet / CC
'Saltire' / Julien Ortet / CC

In July the press ran with the story that the 56 SNP Members of Parliament had elected to donate their seven thousand pound salary increase to charity. The group’s decision followed a report by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) recommending MPs salaries be increased from 67,060 to £74,000.

The move is not a surprise. IPSA had previously suggested in 2013 that MPs salaries be increased in the new 2015 parliament. Consequently, in March 2015 members of the Scottish Parliament voted to desist aligning their salaries with their Westminster counterparts. MSPs voted to give themselves a 0.7 percent pay rise, pushing the basic backbench salary to £59,089 and all future pay increases will be linked to public sector pay rises. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, now the highest paid elected representative in the UK, is entitled to a total salary of £144,687 but has opted to voluntarily repay the difference and maintain her £135,605 salary. All other Scottish Cabinet Secretaries opted to continue a voluntary Scottish ministerial pay freeze at 2008/09 levels.

Elected representatives drawing a salary from the public purse will always be a bugbear on par with tax. Or, as Malcolm Tucker said, “They don’t like you having expenses, they don’t like you being paid, they rather you lived in a fucking cave.”

The maxim behind paying our elected representatives anything at all is that if you pay competitively in the public or private sector, you attract the right talent. High-minded ideals of public duty are laudable, but prospective parliamentary denizens need to see a financial benefit to transferring professional expertise into the service of the people. It’s a risk-reward assessment; free market and snobbishly rooted in the idea that high-flyers make for the right people to represent.

An analysis of the professional backgrounds of MSPs found that the number of MSPs to have come from “politics-facilitating” roles such as full-time councillors, party workers, journalists and trade unionists rose from 18.1 percent in 1999 to 28.2 percent in 2011. There are 33.1 percent in professional backgrounds and 17.7 percent from business backgrounds. Blue and white-collar professions stand at a total of only 9.7 per cent. It concluded that: “The professionals outnumbered the professional politicians by almost three to one in 1999, but they are now close to parity.”

Research carried out by The Herald also states that MSPs are four times as likely to have gone to a private school, with 17 percent of Holyrood’s elected members educated independently against the Scottish national average of less than 4 percent.

Qualified would seem then to mean coming from a political or professional background. So does being qualified translate into being a proactive MSP? To put it another way, do you know what your MSP does on a day-to-day basis? Most constituents tend to know what their local representative is doing if they stuff something through the door at election time or resign in disgrace. Public affairs and news monitoring agencies compile stakeholder reports for their clients and newspapers report if they do something exceptional in parliament or on a committee. For most people, beyond social media or blog updates, they see no hour-by-hour accountability to the electorate.

This isn’t cynicism. Teachers, police officers and innumerable other public affairs professionals are mandated to log and plan their activities. It’s a case of value for money but more fundamentally accountability.

Until 2015 MSPs were paid 87.5 percent of an MP’s salary. The percentage, if arbitrary sounding, was based on a report commissioned by the then First Minister and Presiding Officer in 2001, and undertaken by the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB). The review body asked the Hay Group to formulate a way to measure the job weight of an MSP by comparison to an MP:

“Using the Hay method of evaluation which uses ‘know-how’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘accountability’ as the main factors establishing the relative worth of jobs”.

While the review acknowledges the increased workload of MSPs and that the majority of casework had shifted from Scottish MPs to MSPs; the Hay Group report that the review utilised didn’t recommend pay parity because of the narrower nature of the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

More powers to the parliament would, in theory, mean that there should be more pay for its members. Yet despite the precedent why does this logic not apply to the 32 local authorities and the 1,222 elected local councillors in Scotland too?

By comparison to MSPs, the Scotland’s Councillors 2013 research report found that only 27.3 per cent of Scottish councillors surveyed identified themselves as being from a professional background, compared to just 5 percent in routine manual and service occupations.

But, despite the logic of pay allocation for MSPs, in post-referendum Scotland, most Scottish political parties have flirted with ideas for increased subsidiarity to local councils. In June 2014, Reform Scotland published an analysis of each party’s proposals. The yes-voting Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie said decentralisation could have occurred with devolution but “instead we’ve seen ever more power sucked up from the local level and brought to St Andrew’s House.” At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Scottish Conservatives agreed in principle, saying that they “consider that the future of devolution should embrace not only devolution to Scotland but also devolution within Scotland.”

Only the SNP wanted tor to retain the centralisation of local authority funding in the Scottish Parliament. Even with the 650-page White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ detailing examples of how things could change in most areas of public policy following independence, the SNP has offered no innovation in decentralisation from Holyrood to councils. As Alison Payne, an author of the report, notes, had Scottish gained independence, “Scotland would instantly become one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the world because 100 percent of tax income would be controlled by central government.”

Whereas a bid to counter the West Lothian question has spurred an English debate on devolving powers from Westminster, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine has called the equivalent argument in Scotland a bid to “bring down our parliament”.

So whether it be constitutional guarantees, tax devolution, welfare responsibility, or additional tax-raising powers for local authorities, there’s an appetite for change that is being roundly ignored by a highly centralised independence party.

Nevertheless, if each political party got their way tomorrow they have all ignored the same principle of remuneration that is used to justify the salaries of MSPs. This is a fundamental pre-requisite to ensuring councils attract candidates who are capable of dealing with an advanced level of administration.

In 2011 the basic salary for a councillor was £16,234 and was increased to £16,560 in 2014. Their salaries are set by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament by amending the previous Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 (Remuneration and Severance Payments) Amendment Regulations 2015) legislation.

The Scotland’s Councillors 2013 research report is particularly illuminating as to the implications of such a limited salary. For starters, 40.8 per cent of councillors who responded to the survey are in other paid employment in addition to their councillor duties, spending an average of 25 hours working for their other source of income. Of these, 25.4 percent are full-time employees, 44.4 per cent are part-time employees and 30.2 percent are self-employed.

More damningly, 29.5 per cent of councillors in paid employment (excluding self-employment) were granted some paid leave to undertake their council duties. Coupled to this, only 37.3 per cent of councillors have a gross household income in excess of £36,400 while 13.7 percent have gross household income below £10,399 (excluding councillor remuneration or expenses).

There may never be a satisfactory way to fund our elected officials, but by the very logic what stratifies and funds MSPs, we cannot expect councillors to do more all while keeping the same system that keeps them as underfunded and part-time.

The problem is compounded when 69.5 per cent of councillors actually said that further devolution of powers would likely strengthen the role and empowerment of local government. There is an appetite for change, and we cannot expect councillors to undertake it while practising politics in a system that pays it like a hobby. This is how MPs operated before the introduction of the Parliament Act of 1911 that granted them a salary of £400 a year.

We can’t return to treating politics as something to do on the side. Of the 59.2 per cent of councillors that are not in paid employment, 59.9 percent are retired. People with time on their hands are occupying a significant number of council positions, and a generationally disproportionate number are not representing local demographics.

In an age of austerity, it would be risible for councillors to commit mass seppuku by asking, no matter how politely, for a pay rise. But if a real dialogue is to happen on devolution within devolution, it is not caustic or fiscally callous to ensure there is a motivation for local councillors in the same way there is for MSPs. It’s not duffle jackets at dawn or wide-eyed socialism to factor financial practicality and public duty into the equation. Some MSPs may act like Chateaux generals, but many work hard and councillors are lagging behind by the very logic that justifies their opulence.

For most people, the community is the aesthetic, physical and practical reality of their engagement with public political life. Debates on nationalism or the direction of the economy are a world removed from the realities of having your bins collected, your roads paved and teachers in schools. Policy decisions of councils play a fundamental role in shaping the political unit that people are familiar with every day.

While the Finance Secretary John Swinney has allocated more than £10.85bn for councils in his 2015-16 budget, councils are under a legal duty to balance their budgets. Scottish councils get about 80p of every pound they spend, from the Scottish government. Mr Swinney angered local authorities by insisting that they must agree to maintain teacher numbers if they want to receive their full cash settlement from the Scottish Government. This, coupled with a council tax freeze for the eighth year in a row, has lead to 39,300 job losses in local government in Scotland since 2007 as local authorities tighten their belts. Only a small proportion of council cash comes from charges for using services or bus lane fines.

The very same argument used by the Scottish Government for more powers to protect itself from far away cutting is applicable to local authorities, small and large, across Scotland.

David O’Neill, the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), has called for the “more pressing need” need to devolve power down from Holyrood to local authority level. He’s argued that:

“For inequalities to be addressed, local government in Scotland needs to be freed up, more empowered and better resourced to be able to do the job that needs to be done.’

“Here and now, for our most deprived communities, what happens within Scotland and how we are organised to deliver better outcomes is a much more pressing issue

“Talks on devolution within Scotland seem to have stalled and, if anything, a more centralised approach within Scotland seems to be developing.”

O’Neill has been proactive in his approach, convening the independent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. The Commission’s first report echoes O’Neill’s sentiments, calling for greater transparency, more devolution of Holyrood powers and greater grassroots community engagement.

So when Joan McAlpine asks “Who do you trust more, your local council or the Scottish Parliament?” she forgets that we live in a country with constituencies and with a periphery-centre relationship not dissimilar to that of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. Has there ever been a plebiscite to ask if the people would like to see more powers devolved to their communities?

Ms McAlpine should perhaps ask ‘who do you trust more to deliver services that matter to your day-to-day life?’ Local Authorities are derided but underpaid, and yet, as Taxpayer Scotland has compiled, there are unelected civil servant chief executives and senior directors of local authorities receiving in excess of £100,000 a year.

Years ago the MSP Tommy Sheridan was derided for keeping half of his salary and giving the rest to the Scottish Socialist Party. The debate on pay increases will always be vitriolic, but draconian reactions to the idea our representatives draw a salary at all should not become the norm. All representatives should be accountable for what they do on an hour by hour basis and their pay reduced if they refuse to comply. This is different to saying they shouldn’t be paid anything at all.

The system can, should and must be better. With electoral commission support and no deposit required to contest, we should have candidates climbing over each other to compete. Whatever measurement is used to assess whether devolution has been a success should be applied to local councils. Paying a competitive, enticing wage must be deemed as part of the process in the same way it is for MSPs. At the very least empirical studies should be undertaken to assess the cost of changing the present system of remuneration for councillors.

In the Scottish Councillors report, 84.1 per cent said that they became a councillor out of a desire to make their communities better. We shouldn’t test this, risk losing it, or assume it will go on forever.

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About Alastair Stewart 226 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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