Among the news this week, you might have missed one seemingly unimportant piece. Eric Pickles’ department has decided that English councillors, GLA members and the mayor of London will be forced to leave the local government pension scheme from May. Unlike members of parliament and, bizarrely, police and crime commissioners, councillors are deemed by Pickles to be ‘elected volunteers’ and therefore no longer worthy of a pension.
Certainly nobody is going to man the barricades for this. ‘What do we want? Pensions for councillors! When do we want them? To continue as they have done since 2003!’ But it reveals something incredibly narrow-minded and unpleasantly petty in this government. Already, councils are too often the preserve of the retired or the wealthy – how will removing pension rights help young people or poorer people to stand and be elected? Many councillors cut their hours at work to allow them to carry out their elected roles, and lose pension rights as a result – is it only the wealthy who should be expected to do this? Pickles’ answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
MPs used to be unpaid and the result was clear – only the wealthy need apply. Working people, young people and, of course, women simply couldn’t afford to be elected. Pickles wants to take us back to those days in local government. He talks about councillors as if they occasionally help out manning a tea hut at a village fete. In his view, a councillor should do a full day’s work and then hit the town hall in the evening to manage budgets running into the hundreds of millions; safeguard children and adults; oversee education, regeneration, training and economic development; run public health in their area; manage transport and the environment; and sort out homelessness and housing. For anybody with a family or a full-time job, this is just not doable.
Ending what Pickles calls ‘taxpayer-funded pensions for councillors’ will save the entirety of local government just £7m a year. To put this in perspective, my own authority of Waltham Forest has had to save £65m a year in the last four years, with another £40m to come in the next four. The Pickles plan saves virtually nothing but will have an enormously negative impact on the diversity of people who can now consider standing for their local council and taking part in the decision-making process. As the Conservative head of the Local Government Association said, ‘The government’s decision isn’t about saving money, it is fundamentally about undermining the role of a councillor and undermining the role of local democracy’. It is a miserable attempt from a miserable department at playing politics.
Pickles tries to whip up a public fury at ‘taxpayer-funded pensions’ and says that this is all about ‘value for council tax payers’ – but what about MPs’ pensions? Are these not funded by the taxpayer? His argument that councillors are not paid employees, so should not be part of a pension scheme, is utter nonsense. MPs are not paid employees, yet they continue to merit a pension, and with good reason, if we agree that we want people of all backgrounds to be able to stand for public office. The Pickles plan is a deliberate attempt to make politics more cynical and narrow-minded.
His attempts to unite the public in a display of righteous anger against local government have failed. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents to his own consultation said that the pensions should stay – including 54 per cent of members of the public. Just two members of the public argued that pensions should go. It has, though, succeeded in uniting the political parties – Conservatives have joined with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to fight this through the courts. To unite the parties in a common cause just two months out from an election take a special political skill.
No doubt Pickles and his ministers will try to paint councillors as pigs at the trough, fighting to keep it filled to the brim, while sensible Farmer Eric tries to cut back on the cost of swill. He is wrong. Many of us (me included) voluntarily reduced our councillors’ allowances in 2010 to save our authorities money. Did Pickles reduce his salary? Not a chance. And does Pickles himself think that his second home gave taxpayers value, when his first home was just 37 miles away?
All Pickles’ ministers in the Commons are former councillors and two – Kris Hopkins and Brandon Lewis – served in local government at a time when they could have joined the local government pension scheme. Did they join? We have a right to know, and they should confirm now that they were not members of a scheme that they presumably saw as an outrageous and profligate waste of public money. But if they did join then they should explain what has changed – why was it suitable for them, but not suitable for others?
This might be small beer in the wider scheme of things, but it goes to the heart of this government’s view of local democracy. It is ironic that, at a time when his department continues to load new, unfunded, responsibilities onto local government, he should see fit to consistently undermine those he expects to carry out those tasks. This is about whether local democracy should truly be open to all and whether those who are elected can take the time to do a difficult, important job properly. It is about the rights of women, young people and those without big savings pots to decide what happens in their local areas. And it is about a government which thinks that some should take decisions and others should just shut up and listen. On second thoughts, maybe we should man the barricades!
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.