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Surrey County Council Lib Dems ask Eric Pickles to investigate excessive councillors allowance increases

May 13, 2014 3:46 PM
Originally published by Surrey County Council Lib Dems
Eric Pickles MP

Surrey County Council Lib Dems have written to Eric Pickles about excessive increases in allowances paid to county councillors

At the meeting of the Surrey County Council on 6 May the Conservative administration pushed through excessive increases in allowances for councillors, including 60% increases for both the Leader of the Council and the Deputy Leader. The Liberal Democrats voted against the proposed increases.

Councillor Hazel Watson, the Leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on Surrey County Council said:

"I have written to Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government asking him to investigate the way in which these decisions were taken and whether they complied with government regulations, which is questionable.

"I am doing everything possible to challenge these inappropriate decisions on behalf of Surrey residents, who have to foot the bill for these excessive increases for councillors.

"I hope the Secretary of State will undo these decisions so that more reasonable allowances for Surrey county councillors can be put in place."

ENDS

Text of letter:

Dear Mr Pickles,

I am writing to ask that you intervene in the issue of Members' Allowances at Surrey County Council.

As you are probably aware, on 6 May 2014 a new scheme of Members' Allowances was voted through at Surrey County Council's AGM.

Key aspects of this were:

1) The scheme voted through was not in line with the recommendations of the Independent Review Panel.

The Independent Review Panel made recommendations for significant increases in Members' Allowances. Their report is attached (item 14 - IRP Report April 2014 FINAL (v2)). However the increases recommended by the administration attached (item 14 - Recommendations tabled) far exceeded these, as did the subsequent increases voted through attached (Minute REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT REMUNERATION PANEL). As a result the members of the Independent Review Panel have resigned en bloc. Their press release is also attached (IRP PRESS RELEASE MAY 12 2014).

2) The increases were tabled at the last minute, with no openness and transparency in the recommendations tabled by the majority group.

The Leader's recommendations were circulated in an email to Group Leaders at 16.38 on 2 May, the Friday before the Tuesday AGM. While presumably all Group leaders circulated them to their members, they were not tabled to all members, including those who are not members of groups, until the meeting.

3) The number of Special Responsibility Allowances was increased to 61, on a council with 81 members.

The number of SRAs now paid to Surrey County Councillors has grown to 61, with 57 of these being paid to the administration. Government guidance states: "if the majority of members of a council receive a special responsibility allowance [in addition to the basic allowance], the local electorate may rightly question whether this was justified."

4) The Leader and the Deputy Leader received increases of approximately 60%.

The IRP recommended increases of 31.6% to the Leader of the Council and 55.6% to the Deputy Leader. These were already high. The increases that have been voted through are 59.3% for the Leader and 60.3% for the Deputy Leader.

Previous allowance

IRP recommendation

New allowance

Leader of the Council (1)

£27,000

£35,548

£43,000

Deputy Leader (1)

£19,500

£30,333

£31,250

5) To avoid restrictions on back dating increases, a lump sum being the equivalent of back dating by a year is being paid.

As recorded in the minutes "(iii) In recognition of the clear intention that the amended scheme should take effect from 21 May 2013, a one-off payment, equivalent to any increase that the Member would have been eligible for, be made to each Member."

6) To avoid the transparency and accountability of annual reviews an annual automatic increase has been applied.

As recorded in the minutes: "(ii) for the next two financial years, the scheme will be adjusted annually in accordance with the Consumer Price Index." The legality of this must be open to question, as the regulations are designed to ensure transparency in annual reviews of SRAs. Regulation 10 (1) of The Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003 states: "Before the beginning of each year, an authority shall make the scheme required by regulation 4(1)(a) for the payment of basic allowance for that year." Surely the word "each" means that the issue has to be considered through due process every year.

7) Surrey does not publish a press notice of the Independent Review Panel's recommendations.

Regulation 22 of The Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003 states:

22. (1) Once an authority receives a copy of a report made to it by an independent remuneration panel in accordance with regulation 21, it shall, as soon as reasonably practicable-

(a)ensure that copies of that report are available for inspection by members of the public at the principal office of the authority, at all reasonable hours; and .

(b)publish in one or more newspapers circulating in its area, a notice which- .

(i)states that it has received recommendations from an independent remuneration panel in respect of its scheme; .

(ii)describes the main features of that panel's recommendations and specifies the recommended amounts of each allowance mentioned in the report in respect of that authority; .

(iii)states that copies of the panel's report are available at the principal office of the authority for inspection by members of the public at such times as may be specified by the authority in the notice; and .

(iv)specifies the address of the principal office of the authority at which such copies are made available. .

(2) An authority shall supply a copy of a report made by an independent remuneration panel in accordance with regulation 21 to any person who requests a copy and who pays to the authority such reasonable fee as the authority may determine.

However Surrey County Council has not published the reports of Independent Remuneration Panels for many years, 2006 was the last time for "cost/benefit" reasons. Thus removing transparency.

8) Surrey County Council has consistently increased Council Tax in recent years.

Surrey County Council increased Council Tax by 1.99% this year. In only one year has Surrey frozen Council Tax, in every other year in this parliament it has increased it to the maximum without triggering a referendum. The administration has argued that it has been forced to make these increases due to reduction in government grant, but this is contradictory to giving councillors a pay rise that will cost a quarter of a million pounds over the four year period which it is set.

I ask that you conduct an investigation into the legality and appropriateness of Surrey County Council's revised Members' Allowances scheme, intervene and take appropriate action.

Yours sincerely,

Hazel Watson

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, Surrey County Council

LINK TO LETTER