How do you fancy a job that pays you £15,333 for less than two hours work a year?
Yes: a year.
An hourly rate of around £10,000.
Only trouble is, you do have to be a Tory councillor in Barnet, and you do need the patronage of the leader, Ms Lynne Hillan. If you can meet these stringent job specifications, you might be in with a chance.
Ah, but Mrs Angry, I hear you cry: I read in my local paper that the allowance rises have been dumped, and I thought that all the unpleasantness of the last few weeks is all forgotten and forgiven?
Er: no. That is what the Tories want you to think. You might want to use your own judgement.
On Tuesday night I sat in the public gallery of our Town Hall and listened yet again to the Tory councillors in Barnet ranting about their usual retro obsessions: unions, quangos, waste, over spending, yawn, and then their sneering at public sector workers, who are people without 'real jobs', the tube strikers, people on housing benefit. These people, you see, are living off the state, or living the life of Reilly in over paid jobs subsidised by the tax payer. Disgraceful. Not like the hard working, noses to the grind Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, you see.
Ok. So last night Mrs Angry sent her spy to the Finchley and Golders Green Residents Forum. Her loyal spy and good friend, let's call her Mrs X, had tabled some questions, as follows:
Question 1: "The allowance rises that Conservative councillors voted for themselves in July have been greeted with widespread outrage by residents of the borough, and unprecedented criticism by senior Conservative politicians in the government. Despite such condemnation, and the partial retraction by the Leader of some of the proposed rises, I understand that eight Tory councillors who chair Committees are still going to receive massive increases in their allowances, as follows:
Cllr A Tambourides Licensing Committee £9,974 increased to £15,333 (increase of 54%)
Cllr Alison Cornelius Health OSC the same
Cllr Wendy Prentice Planning & Env the same
Cllr Hugh Rayner Bus Mgt OSC Sub the same
Cllr Darrel Yawitch Budget Perf OSC the same
Cllr Brian Gordon Policy Perf OS the same
Cllr Joan Scannell General Functions the same
Cllr John Marshall Pension Fund the same
a: Can you confirm that these allowance rise figures are correct?
b. How many times a year do each of theses committees meet?
c. We hear almost every day of the enormous level of cuts that must be made to local services, the frozen pay of ordinary council workers, and the risk of redundancy to so many others, and we know that many residents of this borough will be struggling to survive in the current precarious economic climate. I therefore ask the Conservative councillor members of this Forum to explain to the residents and voters of Finchley and Golders Green how they can defend the the staggeringly high allowance rise given to their privileged colleagues?
Question 2:a. Is it the case that a councillor in receipt of an allowance, or other form of attendance renumeration, is still paid for his or her attendance even when they do not bother to attend the meeting in question?
b. Is there any way in which residents can properly scrutinise the level of work and service which councillors provide in return for these allowances? Surely in these 'challenging times' such allowances should be performance related and should not be regarded merely as a gift from the local tax payer?
So Mrs X trundled along to the Forum. Oh, what a disappointment: the only Tory councillor to turn up was the youthful chair, Dean Cohen (you know, from one of the dynastic arrangements on the council, the son of Cabinet Member Melvin Cohen). Apologies came from not one, not two, but three other Tory councillors, Graham Old, the vice Chair, Reuben Thompson, and oh, Dean's Dad, Melvin. Dean is a nice enough kid, but frankly looked as if he would rather be at home on his X box than fending off awkward questions from the ungrateful residents of Finchley and Golders Green. He is, however, the Chair of this Forum.
When these questions came up, he looked a bit bemused. Mrs X pointed out that he might like to come up with some sort of response. A written answer, by council officers, had confirmed that these incredible 54% pay increases to Commmittee chairs were going ahead: what did he have to say about this? He looked thoughtful. Well, at the meeting last night, he said, proposed allowance rises were retracted, you know.
-But not these?
-Why not? Did he not think that in view of the current economic climate these rises were completely inappropriate?
-Oh, well ... the rates are as suggested by a London wide scheme ... bla bla bla
-That doesn't mean that the council has to impose them, does it?
-Well, the rates are as suggested by a London wide scheme ... bla bla bla .. he repeated this several times.
An angry lady in the front row (no, not me) said to him: 'Why on earth don't you at least try to come up with some sort of defence? All you do is repeat the same thing!'
Mrs X expressed the view that the reason he could come up with no defence was that there was none, that these 54% rises were indefensible, and might even be described as obscene. Hear, hear, yelled the residents in the hall.
Are the councillors not aware, she asked, of the fact that ordinary council officers, and indeed most people in the public and private sector, not only are facing frozen salaries, but the threat of redundancy? How then can the councillors justify these outrageously high increases?
Councillor Cohen looked at a loss for what to say, as well he might. Also sitting in the hall, by the way, were Libdem Councillor Monroe Palmer, and a man who looked awfully like the Deputy Leader of the Tory group, Mr Andrew Harper. Mrs X decided, however, that this cannot possibly have been Mr Harper as he did not avail himself of the opportunity to defend the leadership's actions over the allowance rise hikes but remained hidden at the back, silent and anonymous, and within running distance of the exit.
The discussion became even more interesting.
The written answer had details of the number of times each committee meets per year, and the number of scheduled meetings in 2010/11 - as follows:
Licensing Committee - number of meetings: 2
Health OSC - 5
Planning Environment 12
Bus Management OSC 8
Budget & Performance OSC 9
Policy & Performance OSC 2
General Functions 5
Pension Fund 4
At the Full Council Meeting on Tuesday, I heard a councillor state that the total time spent in session by the Licensing Committee was 1 hour and 14 or possibly 1 hour 40 minutes: it was hard to hear, because of the uproar.
Yes, that's right, work it out, citizens. If we are generous (and we are, aren't we?) and say it is 1 hour and 40 minutes, that makes a modest rate of around, er, £10,000 per hour! Well f*** me.
Isn't this the most disgusting, insulting, obscene gesture at the ordinary, hard working residents of this borough who have to foot the bill for this bunch of ugly faced troughers?
As Mr Lustig was able to confirm, there are currently no council officers in receipt of this privileged payscale.
If you remember, on Tuesday night, Councillors Brian Gordon and Tom Davey mouthed off about the public sector, whose employees, according to Davey, don't have real jobs - you know, all those lazy, scrounging, over paid nurses, police officers, care assistants - and council officers ...
By the way: who is the Chair of the Policy & Performance OSC committee, which has how many meetings scheduled this year, er .... only two, yes - and will see his Chair allowance increase from a poverty line wage of £9,974 to a miserly £15,333? Er ... Councillor Brian Gordon.
How are these posts allocated, then: is it on the grounds of proven experience in the areas of responsibilty? Hard to tell. Certainly Councillor John Marshall is well qualified for the Pension Fund Committee, being an old codger, and having been in politics for a long time - rumoured to have been an MP in the time of William Pitt the Younger.
What about the handsome and charming Andreas Tambourides, who, like any supermodel, only gets out of his Tory Committee Chairman's bed for £15,333 a year: what are his qualifications for the demanding role on the Licensing Commitee?
It could be argued, of course that there is a lot of background work which we do not see: reading, researching, etc. I am sure there is, - and I am sure that most of it is done by council officers. And anyway, so what? Many residents take part in, say, voluntary community committees which demand a certain amount of commitment of time and other contributions, and in return receive no more than a plate of stale biscuits (if they're lucky), and a glass of water.
If the fabulously well rewarded Chairs of these committees are appointed on the basis of merit, and expertise, what is the process of appointment? Are they subject to an application procedure, an interview, and performance assessment? Are they subject to equal opportunities criteria, and appointment panels? If not, it would appear that, in the interests of 'transparency' and 'accountability', there is urgent need of the introduction of such a procedure.
Mrs X suggested to Councillor Dean Cohen that, as he seemed to feel that his colleagues were being reluctantly forced to accept pay rises of 54% on the basis of a particular new pay scale, that they may want, in view of the economic crisis, to set a good example and forego a significant part, if not all, of their extra payments. He nodded, unconvincingly. It was always possible, he thought. Would he, suggested Mrs X, care to put this to his colleagues? Er, he could certainly put it to them ... Good, said Mrs X. Please do, and can we have this minuted, that Councillor Cohen is going to make this suggestion, and may we please have a formal response?
Watch this space, then.
Which brings us neatly to Mrs X's second question, the scrutiny and appraisal of councillors.
A written answer stated:
"Members' allowances are paid for the office they hold and are not linked to attendance at meetings.
The public can scrutinise this through attendance at public meetings, scrutiny of published reports of the Council meeting(s) and through direct questioning of the relevant Member(s). Furthermore, in July 2010 Council resolved 'That the recommendation of LCIP be followed for role descriptions to be developed for councillors for all their areas of work; the role descriptions to be placed on council websites; Members to report publicly on their activity through a variety of channels ... and the introduction of an appraisal system for Members."
In other words, at present, there are none of the LCIP recommendations in place, and there will still be no accountability in the way in which posts such as the Chairs are made. I suggest that we all, as advised, ask our councillors on a regular basis what they have been doing, how many meetings they have been to, how many they have missed, etc. I am sure that they will all be happy to respond. Then we can give them helpful performance appraisals throughout the course of the next three and a half years, when of course they will have to reapply for the job of councillor.
As to attendance rates: Mrs X asked Councillor Cohen if he thought it was acceptable that a council officer on a modest salary cannot receive payment for a meeting which he failed to attend, yet Councillors do not have to account for their absences from meetings, or reimburse any payment? For example, he had failed to attend the previous Forum, of which he was Chair: he had sent apologies, but no explanation: did he not think that residents were entitled to such?
He stated that he had been at a family wedding. Perhaps, suggested Mrs X, it might have been a good idea to explain this, as unfortunately, with the absence of any other Conservative councillors, it left your colleague Councillor Old to bear the brunt of residents' fury over the allowance rise scandal, and residents had mistakenly thought that you were avoiding the Forum for that reason.
Mr Lustig then made some useful comments, and talked at length, and in some detail, about the 'interesting subject' of how to approach the performance appraisal of councillors, this issue evidently being one to which he has given great thought.
Hmmm. I'll bet.