Local Liberal Democrats have condemned what they have misleadingly described as "expenses scandal" at Lancaster City Council. The debacle has led to the resignation of the Chair of the Independent Panel investigating the issue - but Conservatives, Greens and Labour councillors have hit back at the Lib Dem allegations.
A councillors working group is currently investigating how allowances to councillors should be paid. The Liberal Democrats have refused to take part, which was set up after a Labour proposal was passed which did not accept the recommendations of an Independent Renumeration Panel.
The panel had invited evidence from all councillors on their responsibilities and workload, but the LibDems claim only a few responded to the request. The panel chair, Alan Mercer, Professor Emeritus of Management Science at Lancaster University, made their recommendations in a report to the last Full Council meeting, recommending that the payment of allowances (not expenses, which the LibDems seem purposely to be describing them) should be reallocated away from funding party political posts and should instead be directed towards councillor who have increased levels of responsibility in the authority.
However, the overwhelming majority of councillors rejected the Independent Panel's recommendations and voted to set up their own working group. Since the meeting, Alan Mercer has resigned, stating that he had no wish to waste his time "a charade".
Speaking during the debate, Liberal Democrat Group Leader Stuart Langhorn spoke against the rejection of the Independent Renumeration Panel's recommendations. "We have seen the problems caused in Westminster when politicians start deciding their own pay levels," he argued. "It is wrong there and it is wrong of us to do the same.
"The council tax payer should not be funding party political appoinyments like group leaders. We have an Independent Renumeration Panel and we should accept their recommendations."
Referring to the working group, he added, "This group will not be open to the public - essentially they will do their deal of their own behind closed doors and then bring it to the council to approve it.
"The Lib Dem Group will have no part in such a process. We have already made it clear that we will not send representatives to the group. All councillors had a chance to make representations to the Indeoendent Panel and it is ridiculous to set up their own group just because they do not like what was said."
"It is a dark day for transparency in local politics," he added.
But Conservatives, Green and Labour have hit back at the Lib Dem claims. "The misleading Lib Dem press release states it refers to Councillor expenses, but this is not true," Conservative leader Roger Mace told virtual-lancaster. "Allowances - as indicated in the Panel's title are in the nature of taxable remuneration - are not 'expenses'. To use the word 'expenses' is to imply that this is an extension of the issues which caused such trauma in our national politics. Such an implication is unfounded.
"The proposals in the report relating to abolishing remuneration for Councillors that take responsibility as Group Leaders and Administrators are not new," Roger explains. "They have been repeated annually for a number of years, and have not ever been approved by Council. An independent Panel is obliged to report to Council - but the panel does not have legal power to impose its recommendations.
"Local Councils throughout the country have remuneration packages that differ according to their individual circumstances, and Lancaster is like others in this respect.
"Far from being 'a cosy smoke-filled room' in which Councillor remuneration will be hiked up in a secret agreement, Conservatives will be arguing in the working group for a total freeze on the existing scheme of allowances," he added.
Councillor Mace also points out that it is not true that Labour, Conservative and Green Parties voted to set up their own working group. "The working Group is a Council working group - and no group is excluded from participating!"
No single group at Lancaster has sufficient voting power to guarantee that its ideas will be adopted by Council, so I cannot promise that there will be no increases in Councillor remuneration, but I can assure you of the way in which local Conservative Councillors will be arguing. It is inappropriate for City Councillor remuneration to increase at a time when City Council employees are facing job cuts and the other multiple hardships and restraints on pay that are associated with the recession.
"Some of the proposals in the report greatly increased the remunerations of some members at the expense of others and particularly for the Leader and Cabinet Members," argues Labour Councillor Eileen Blamire. "To spend an afternoon discussing these and other obvious changes with over 50 people would have been ridiculous.
"This was the first report that suggested so many changes and many at the expense of the lowest paid Councillors. I resent the implication that trying to look at it in detail with others, ask questions and try to bring back a carefully considered report to Council in June is somehow not transparent. Could there be a General election going on?"
"Our group was split on whether we should accept the recommendations completely or whether we should tinker with them a bit," says Green Party councillor Jon Barry. "The majority was in favour of tinkering.
"The main issue I had with the recommendations was that the basic allowance for back bench councillors was frozen at just over £3,000 whereas increases were recommended for cabinet members and the leader. The leader's salary (on top of the £3000) went up by £5,000 to £16,000 and cabinet members' additional allowance increased to £8,000.
"My view is that we need to recognise the constituency work that bench councillors do and reward the leader and cabinet less," he adds. "In the Green group sumission to the panel, we wanted to see an increase in the back bench pay - and that this should be paid for by reducing the number of councillors."