Something to hide?

20 Aug

Back in June local resident Alan Combe submitted a Freedom of Information request asking about deductions made from elected councillors’ allowances and paid to the Labour party. He had two questions:

Between 6 April 2010 and 5 April 2014, how much, in total, has been deducted (by the Council) from the Basic Allowances paid to elected members of Newham Council and passed to funds/ accounts controlled by the Labour Group or the Labour Party?

Between 6 April 2010 and 5 April 2014, how much, in total, has been deducted (by the Council) from the Special Responsibility Allowances paid to elected members of Newham Council and passed to funds/ accounts controlled by the Mayor, the Labour Group or the Labour Party?

The request was due to be answered by 23rd July but the council didn’t get round to dealing with it until yesterday, when they informed Mr Combe that they were refusing to give the information:

Under the Freedom of Information Act we have the right to refuse a request for information held if an exemption applies. We believe in this case such an exemption applies and have decided to refuse your request.

We believe that disclosing even the total figure of deductions from the allowances of any Councillors over a specified period would contravene the first data protection principle, which requires that personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully by the London Borough of Newham.

The council has deliberately misconstrued the request in order to find an excuse to say no. Any reasonable person reading Alan Combe’s questions would understand them as a request for the aggregate total of deductions from all councillors, not a list of councillors and the money deducted from each of them.

It is common practice in local government for elected members to hand over part of their allowance to their party. It is an important source of funding and all parties do it. It’s not a secret. Newham is exceptional only in that all 60 councillors, plus the mayor, belong to the same party and therefore all the money goes to Labour. 

The amount is actually fairly easy to estimate. We know that the total amount paid to councillors (including the mayor) is a touch over £1.2 million a year. If the party takes 10% – which is a number I’ve heard mentioned – that’s £120,000 a year; a total of £480,000 over the four year period.

I’m not sure who decided to try and dodge the question or whether it was down to an order from on high, but all they’ve succeeded in doing is making it look like there’s something to hide.

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5 Responses to “Something to hide?”

  1. Birdman August 20, 2014 at 21:21 #

    I had an FOI answered on this issue a few years ago and the figure was 5%. I have had letters published in the Recorder, and have posted on this site and others speculating that the amount Newham Labour gets in a 4 year period is around £250k. Why they hesitate to answer a similar request a few years later is a mystery. The Lib Dems by the way, collect 10% as a matter of policy. The Tories have looser arrangements but also collect. Nationally it is a scandal that raises millions of public money to fund political parties. In Newham the collection is carried out by LBN at source and I think they make a small service charge. The amount raised funds a full time officer and pays for campaigning.

    • Martin Warne August 21, 2014 at 15:41 #

      You might be right about the 5% and I have simply mis-remembered the conversation I had. Of course it wouldn’t matter if Newham simply answered the question they were asked, instead of being shifty and evasive about it.

      And it’s the shiftiness that I object to, not the councillors giving money to their party.

      Assuming we agree that councillors should be paid for the time they devote to their duties – the rate of remuneration and the excessive number receiving SRAs is a separate (through related) issue – then what they spend the money on is their business. Newham only owes us an FOI response because they deduct the money at source and transfer it direct to Labour. If councillors received their full allowance and made their own private arrangements to donate – by direct debit, for example – it would be no-one’s business but their own.

      • Birdman August 21, 2014 at 19:09 #

        Martin, there is an important level on which it is not their business. Councillors across the country, including Newham, consistently argue that they need more allowance to do their job, but that argument is undermined as they give it away to fund party political activity. In the case of Newham they also defy government policy by agreeing to set up their own pension fund which will cost council tax payers many thousands in the years to come. This proposal was not mentioned in their election literature. Newham councillors are amongst the highest paid in England, and the large amounts of special responsibility allowances are exorbitant and are not accounted for in performance measurement terms. The more the Mayor gives, the more goes into Labour Party coffers. There is no scrutiny. The official line is that they will follow the London wide independent remuneration committee recommendations but that committee does not rule on how the Mayor gives or manages SRA payments and it has not recommended the setting up of a private pension scheme for Newham councillors, although it has expressed strong regret that Pickles has ended the access to the local government pension scheme that councillors enjoyed, albeit only for a few years. Allowances in Newham need proper scrutiny.

  2. Martin Warne August 22, 2014 at 11:30 #

    I agree with almost everything you say, particularly regarding the extraordinary number of ‘mayoral advisors’ receiving large SRAs without there being any indication of what they’re meant to being doing for the money.
    These people have been in office for more than 3 months and there’s no sign of any documented roles and responsibilities. That is a scandal.
    There should be a cap on total allowances and a cap on the number of councillors who can receive an SRA. Plus, if there’s no job description with measurable performance targets, there’s no SRA.
    You also make a good point about pensions. Two of the things our newly elected councillors discussed at their very first council meeting were allowances and setting up a scheme for their own pensions. How exactly do they think that looks to voters?
    Where I disagree is about what councillors do with the money they’re paid. Would you say that the case for councillor allowances was undermined if they chose to give the money to Oxfam, or Save the Children, rather than the Labour party?
    I’m not saying an £11,000 basic allowance for 60 councillors – when we have an executive mayor who takes all the decisions – is even remotely justified, but I do think they are entitled to some level of compensation for their time and what they do with that is then their business.

  3. Birdman August 23, 2014 at 04:41 #

    Martin, I believe allowances are essential for councillors, along with proper recompense for expenses such as child care. I sit on an independent remuneration committee in one of the Shires so I know how difficult it is to determine appropriate rates. Rather than guidelines on SRA rates, I believe there should be statutory levels with independent scrutiny and monitoring of Mayoral largesse. I also believe that the amount of allowances should be determined by parliament so there is consistency across the country. I also accept that what councillors do with their allowances is a matter for them. However, the point I am making is their case for higher allowances, which I hear every time my committee meets, is completely undermined when a proportion of the allowance is immediately spent on their political party of choice, as their arguments for more allowance never mention that. Their argument is that they need more to compensate for loss of earnings etc. In London the rates are recommended by a London wide remuneration committee and I can only repeat that it has not recommended that London boroughs set up their own pension schemes for members. Indeed, in some London boroughs members did not get given the option to join the LGPS when others were able to. I have mixed views on whether councillors should have pensionable allowances and I have seen no evidence that it encourages a younger and more diverse mix, which is one of the arguments for. The scandal in Newham is that they have agreed an independent scheme without telling the electorate and without knowing any of the costs. Those on the highest allowances benefit most, and that includes the Mayor himself.

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