Higher salaries on the agenda

By Charlotte Hofton

Friday, March 28, 2014



The IW Council’s annual meeting last week was a joyous occasion, at least as far as the councillors were concerned. The agenda provided maximum opportunity to talk about themselves, which is beyond doubt their favourite occupation.

The item on councillors’ remuneration (or 'renumeration’ as practically everyone mispronounces it) was naturally of particular interest and saw a number of old chestnuts stalking the debate on how much our elected representatives should be paid.

It’s a ticklish subject and applies, of course, not just to politicians at local level but to MPs at Westminster. Some think they should be paid only what they’re worth, which, in most people’s opinion, is probably nothing.

Tempting but unpractical.

There are then two further possibilities to explore. First — and this is more commonly perceived where local authorities are involved — those who serve the electorate should be doing it out of the highest ideals, expecting only token monetary gain and content merely to be rewarded by the glorious self-satisfaction engendered by commitment to public service.

There are a number of Island councillors who take this attitude, not least Cllr Paul Fuller, who has stated publicly he would be prepared to work for peanuts. At this point, the old axiom about peanuts and monkeys springs to mind but Cllr Fuller doubtless means well.

Perhaps there are some very good councillors who can afford to work for peanuts. Cllr Fuller may even be one of them.

Realistically, however, life isn’t like that. If you pay peanuts, you’ll certainly get a fair old representation of monkeys in the council chamber, even more than there are at present.

Cllr Ian Stephens, on becoming council leader after the last elections, took a voluntary 51 per cent cut from the salary received by his predecessor.

"I didn’t get a pat on the back, didn’t want a pat on the back," he told last week’s meeting.

As with Cllr Fuller, the leader means well. But he didn’t actually deserve a pat on the back, because whether he took the cut out of high-mindedness or populism (one suspects a mixture of both), the move turned out to be completely unrealistic and a waste of time, so after further paperwork and hassle, he’s now in for a 37 per cent increase.

It’s still less than David Pugh received, so those who think councillors should not be paid a great deal can’t complain. However, with proper foresight, all this back and forth malarkey would never have happened at all.

Cllr Stephens, with the best of intentions, got muddled about what would actually be feasible when it came to his pay. But he’s not the only one. Our councillors are confused, torn between being ethical (particularly when massive redundancies loom at County Hall) and looking at the realities of the financial world.

And it is those realities which frame the third possibility in the debate. You can pay peanuts. You can pay a modest amount, quite a nice sum but not enough to enrage the voters.

Or you can pay a really good whack, which might, just might, tempt some real brains to leave their generous salaries and go into politics at a local or national level.

You could also stop all the faffing about with special allowances and expenses.

This applies particularly to MPs. Just scrap the expenses and pay a flat rate, a rate which makes it worthwhile for anyone to enter politics, and leave it up to them to decide whether to spend it on drink or duck houses.

It would avoid all those unfortunate arguments about how expenses are claimed and save a great deal in administration. Just give them the money and let them get on with it.

But the main argument in favour of increased salaries is that they would encourage fresh political thinking.

Despite the overhaul of IW councillors last year, it’s still a pretty has-been scenario. One does not wish to be unkind but there’s a difference between bureaucratic experience and bureaucratic dotage.

Let’s face it, too, County Hall’s debating chamber is easily distinguished from Socratic argument or an evening at the Oxford Union.

OK, maybe we don’t need massive intellectual eggheads but we could certainly do with upping the ante as far as statesmanship is concerned.

We would also benefit from some younger councillors. What thrusting thirty-something, offer-ed the present allowances, is going to leave their whizzy job to join the pensioners’ outing that is an IW council meeting?

The whole topic presents quite a dilemma. The independent remuneration panel has acted responsibly in recommending the latest allowances. Yet until the nettle is truly grasped, we are simply not going to get the calibre of councillors we need.

But, you say, what about all those poor staff and their redundancies?

Consider this. If you had really competent councillors, County Hall might thrive again.

Same applies at Westminster. We need decent MPs to sort out the country, which, whatever the chancellor may say, remains a financially crippling place for many people.

Even better, offered a decent salary, you might attract councillors with the ability to pronounce "remuneration" properly.

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