Friday, 21 April 2017

Finances are tight for all but our town halls' top earners - my Catholic Universe column

I was sat a few days ago checking my bank statement when I noticed that my first monthly payment for council tax had been deducted from my account. I don’t know if you are anything like me but it’s only when I compare statements from month to month that I really notice that the cost of things is going up, sometimes a lot more than inflation.

As I looked at my council tax payment I could see that my monthly instalment for my typical house built around 15 years ago on a new estate had increased this year by very nearly ten pounds. Over the course of a year my bill is about one hundred pounds more than it was in the last financial year.

Now in and of itself I don’t have too much of a problem with my council tax increasing. I shouldn’t do; I was one of the very few people that had a direct vote to increase the tax in my county, and vote to increase it I did.

But I do fully understand that for many the tax rise hasn’t been negligible. For ordinary working families trying to make ends meet ten quid a month is noticeable, for the very worst off it can be the difference between heating and eating.

But the demand on public services, and local councils in particular, are tough right now.

Many local authorities are facing massive and rising bills to look after vulnerable children who have been taken into care but even these pale into insignificance when compared to the increasing cost of social care for our elderly population.

It is, I’m sure for all of us, great news that we are living longer, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that more and more of us are doing so managing, in general, with far more complex health conditions; as we get older very often more than one.

Looking after our elderly population is getting vastly more expensive and someone has to pay for it. I don’t mind if that is me through my council tax.

So I understand that as our government battle to reduce a deficit and pay bills that are unprecedented we have to pay a little more, there has to be a little pain for all of us.

But, I must confess, that this week my spirit of understanding has been tested a little, let me explain.
There is an organisation that you may have heard of called the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The stated purpose of the Alliance is to ‘Change the perception that big government is necessary and irreversible’ and ‘to explain the benefits of a low tax economy’.

The Alliance’s website goes on to explain that ‘we achieve this by releasing pioneering research into taxation and government spending…(using) the Freedom of Information Act to uncover information previously hidden from taxpayers.’

I am not the biggest fan of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, sometimes their ‘research’ will question, to my mind at least, public spending somewhat spuriously. But overall they do play an important role in monitoring our public services and this week they published what has become one of their most high profile annual pieces of work; the ‘Town Hall Rich List’.

To summarise each year the TPA analyse the accounts of local authorities to determine who is earning the big bucks. The organisation investigates how many local authority employees are earning more than one hundred thousand pounds a year and in broad terms what they do to earn so much of our taxpayers hard earned cash.

As always seems to be the case the figures are stark.

This year research conducted by the organisation shows that throughout Great Britain 2,314 council officers receive remuneration packages of more than one hundred thousand pounds; in a time of austerity that is an increase of 89 on last year.

The research conducted shows that in one authority alone, the London Borough of Southwark 44 members of staff earned more than the baseline figure.

Across Britain there are 68 councils who have 10 employees each earning £100,000 or more; that's 68 council’s paying at least one million pounds each to the number of staff that you can count on your fingers.

The TPA discovered that during the last financial year the highest amount paid to a single member of staff was the remuneration package given to Dave Smith, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sunderland Council who received a salary and a payoff including pension contributions of £625, 570.

Mr Smith wasn’t on his own though. The Chief Executive at Liverpool City Council received £461, 823; Birmingham City Council’s Strategic Director of Place received £414,100; whilst over in Yorkshire and the Humber the Chief Executive of Hambleton District, yes District, Council received a package of £397,967.

Now not for one second am I suggesting that any of these individuals or any of the other two thousand officers earning the highest salaries have done anything wrong, in fact quite to the contrary I am sure the vast majority of them are highly qualified and exemplary at their jobs.

I am sure that no impropriety has been uncovered from any council officers on the list and if there had been relevant action would have been taken. I’m equally certain that each employee has been paid within the terms of their contract.

But we have to question in this time when so many ordinary families are struggling should so many council officers be getting paid quite so much?

A great many are being paid more than our Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers responsible for the great offices of state. A great many are being paid more than than senior executives at some of our largest companies.

Are these people truly deserving of salaries, in many cases higher than their private sector equivalents; or is there a greater problem with salaries across the public sector?

Does every council need a Chief Executive with a commensurate remuneration package to match it? Or should councils be working together or merging to address just this type of problem?

Does that mean counties and cities and districts are at risk of losing some of their local determination? Or is it that something that most of us would be quite happy to live with?

But if you think that these 2,314 council employees are the sum total of this problem. Then stop and think again.

You see at the same time as the Taxpayers’ Alliance were releasing their Rich List the Association of Teachers and Lecturers were holding their annual conference when the subject of executive pay in academies was raised.

Conference heard how the boss of the taxpayer funded Harris Federation, which runs 41 state schools, was remunerated £425,000 last year; or as the Daily Mail puts it 85% higher than the head teacher of Eton.

According to figures released by the Department for Education in 2014/15 111 academy trustees, largely Chief Executives and Principals – including a number responsible for state funded Catholic faith schools, were each paid more than £150,000.

There is so much more than could be said about remuneration in academies and the independence of trustees making salary decisions and I am sure that in due course this will be a topic that is returned to by the media as a whole.

But for now I will leave you with a thought. As the vast majority of us watch our bills increase, often for good reasons, as and when our highly paid public sector executives depart do we honestly think that their replacements should be employed on the same terms and conditions as their predecessors?

Do we honestly think that we can’t employ an excellent manager for £90 or £80 or even £70 thousand pounds? Is the talent pool in the private sector so poor that we would see an exodus from these public sector employees?

I think not. And you know what? When it was proved not to be the case we would still have excellent people working in our public sector on more than decent salaries. 

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