Expenses panel quits
THE panel that sets recommendations for what councillors are paid resigned after their recommendations were rejected by the council.
It is the third such panel to have resigned in recent years.
At the council meeting on Thursday evening, Tom Berman presented the Independent Remuneration Panel’s suggestions, which includes raising councillors allowances by 2%, increasing the council’s leader’s remuneration while reducing the opposition leader’s.
He first stressed the panel’s independence.
“It is regrettable that this year there’s been an accusation that this panel is politically motivated. We will not dignify that with any statement of defence. Only silence and a thick skin,” he said.
“The panel has looked for evidence from every possible source within the council, including senior officers and by benchmarking externally, but we take the view that the most valuable evidence comes from the members themselves. It’s disappointing to report that, over the two-year period, this Panel has seen less than half of the 54 members.”
He also raised concerns that “a number of fairly senior longserving members” had “concern over the apparent power of patronage used by the Leader of Wokingham Borough Council over many years”.
The panel said they’d heard this many times over two years and referred to the way in which Conservative councillors were given SRA payments, or paid non-executive directorships of council-owned companies.
“We make clear in our report that this is not within the remit of the panel, but should be a matter for serious review by the council itself. We would urge the Executive to consider how this looks to the ordinary Wokingham borough taxpayer.”
In response, acting council leader Cllr Pauline Jorgensen said: “The Conservative group are unable to support the recommendations to change councillors’ allowances.”
She added that the proposals to change the leaders’ pay was “unwise, unfair and undemocratic”.
“We also believe that it is the wrong time to increase the allowances for members while the authority’s finances are being squeezed so severely”.
Labour group leader Cllr Andy Croy urged councillors to “cut out the criticism of the panel”.
He also said: “this Tory council has already seen two resignations en masse by previous Independent Panels. We cannot lose a third Panel.”
He also said that he felt that “now is not the right time for members to be taking more money from the public purse.
“The major exception to this is the lack of increase in allowable claims made to cover the cost of carers. The current rates may be above the minimum wage but they simply do not reflect the cost of adult social care.
“We also welcome the suggestions to increase the scope of the IRP’s remit and to increase transparency.”
Cllr Prue Bray spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, saying that “we have mainly supported the IRP recommendations as they were at least independent, but this year I am struggling to understand the IRP’s reasoning”.
She also felt that the changes to the leaders allowances “wouldn’t be right”.
A named vote saw some of the panel’s recommendations were approved, but not ones relating to expenses or leaders’ allowances. The IRP resigned on Friday last week. A new panel will need to be appointed.