The geezer is underpaid

23 Jul

Sir robin wales labour hand up for more money

Hands up if you think you’re underpaid on £81,000 a year (photo: WorldSkills)

by Iain Aitch

‘The geezer is underpaid’ is not a phrase you expect to hear from the Deputy Mayor of a Labour council when talking about his boss. You expect it even less when his boss, Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, draws allowances of £81,029 per-annum and is asking Council Tax-payers where £50m of cuts should be made. 

Yet these are the words that came from the mouth of Councillor Lester Hudson at Wednesday evening’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) at East Ham Town Hall. Hudson said he was speaking on behalf of the Mayor as he attempted to justify how and why Wales should get a £10,858 pay rise, in the shape of a pension paid for solely by Newham residents. 

Once tax breaks were taken into account this would leave the Mayor with a council tax-funded income of £96,231. This is more than four-times the mean Newham salary that other councillors reported to the meeting. Hudson was adamant that Wales, full-timers and those who receive Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA) should receive a hefty 13.4% pension contribution from residents. The contribution from Wales and councillors? Zero. 

The meeting was discussing these pensions because the issue had been called in to the OSC by councillors concerned at just how this £600,000 spend over three years would make them look. Councillors Dianne Walls, Seyi Akiwowo and Kay Scoresby asked how this would appear to residents on the doorstep come election time, but Councillors Hudson, McAlmont, Vaughan and Noor argued that MPs get a generous pension, so why shouldn’t they? Vaughan asserted that they were as good as MPs; ironically, Noor decided they were better, even though it appeared that he did not know quite how pensions worked. 

Several members struggled with the concept that they were paid allowances for duties rather than actually being employees of Newham Council. Some had to be reminded more than once. They still remained puzzled. Hudson didn’t help by constantly referring to being an employee, even when he was regaling the meeting with tales of his Cambridge degree, his past as an accountant and how he could earn more elsewhere were it not for his selfless dedication to public service.

If there was a The Thick of It moment during the OSC it was when the big white book of meeting rules was pulled out and dusted off. Newham’s council meetings and committees are not places where dissent is a common occurrence and suddenly there was some. Computer says no. 

The chair, Councillor Anthony McAlmont, didn’t know quite what to do. The rule book was consulted. But it was clear there was more than a simple problem of pensions or procedure at play. The room was divided along gender lines, with Councillors Rokhsana Fiaz and Susan Masters joining the dissent. Female councillors spoke about the impact of austerity, the impact on residents and the probable illegality of the scheme being proposed. Male councillors spoke about how selfless they were and how much they were worth to the public. 

In tense exchanges, issues of childcare, meeting times and parental leave were raised by the women. Councillor Hudson expressed an opinion that those issues had already been discussed at Labour Group. Councillor Akiwowo face-palmed at this point. Fiaz rolled her eyes. Walls pointed out that no such discussion had occurred. Akiwowo came out fighting and impressed mightily. She had already rubbished the idea that huge pensions would attract a younger, more diverse set of councillors. “I’m not 55 and I am pretty diverse,” she said. But the point was lost on the old guard in the chamber. Hudson, unable to vote, left the room stating that he hoped ‘common sense would prevail’ to yet more eye-rolling, astonishment and opprobrium. 

At the meeting’s conclusion, all five women voted to recommend that the Mayor reconsider the pension scheme. All three men voted to say all was fine and dandy and when do the payments start?

The final decision as to whether to spend the £600,000 on pensions now rests with the Mayor. At a time when community centres are being closed, childcare facilities cut and repairs put off it would surely be embarrassing, even for this Mayor, to rub Newham residents’ faces in it, wouldn’t it? Let us see. 

Whatever the decision, it does now seem that the split within Newham Labour’s ranks is becoming visible. It was seemingly bubbling under even before the ink was dry on the ballot papers at the last council election, but now it is out in the open. We may finally have an opposition sitting in the council chamber, only not where anyone would have expected to find them, least of all Sir Robin. 

Iain Aitch is an author and journalist who lives in Newham. He has written for the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Financial Times.

 
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9 Responses to “The geezer is underpaid”

  1. law27 July 23, 2015 at 16:09 #

    Great reporting, but your hopes of a Newham rebellion are sure to be dashed.

    I acknowledge that, on matters relating to Newham Labour councillors, I’m an unwavering cynic, but even those most generously predisposed towards our elected members might wonder if the objections made to the hiked up pensions would have been voiced if all councillors were to be rewarded with

  2. law27 July 23, 2015 at 16:15 #

    … them. (Had to spread this over two comments for some reason?).

    Furthermore, there is a world of difference between opposing the town hall regime in a cloistered meeting room and voicing that opposition publicly.

    But I sincerely hope I’m mistaken.

  3. Birdman July 23, 2015 at 18:09 #

    I share Mikes cynicism. When pensions were discussed after the local elections, all of the councillors bar none, agreed they should have pensions. The decision was that they should all have them. The economic situation has not changed at all. The only thing that has changed is that RW has decided that they can’t all have them. I read with interest the submission John Gray made. He is now against pensions and says they are unlawful. I challenged him on the decision to agree pensions over a year ago and he took the Party line and used the same arguments that RW and his cronies are using. Please note that whilst the independent Remuneration panel for London was against the Government removing the right of councillors to be part of the local authotrity pension scheme it did not recommend that London Boroughs set up their own pension plans for councillors. It was as unaffordable and as unlawful then as it is now. Why it has taken so long for John Gray to realise this is beyond me. He and his fellow objectors should have challenged it then. It seems too late now unless a legal challenge is launched and that will,cost the residents of Newham, who, as usual, lose out whatever happens.

  4. terry ball July 24, 2015 at 05:06 #

    pensions for councillors is surely not right they are not employed they are elected ,I think they should all go back to being paid for attendance fees thirty quid if you go to meetings no sra no standard rate for backbenchers like now .I wonder how many would want to be racing to the polling stations if you get paid on performance like it was years ago .ten thousand pounds is a lot of meetings at £30 a go ,this place is going barmy. next we will be giving them holiday pay and sick pay and bupa .this is not the man I voted for if he allows this .

  5. britvicnic July 25, 2015 at 09:29 #

    Give him half a percent – that’s what I got as a Civil Servant of 18 years’ service, with a professional qualification, and I earn a lot less than him!

  6. Terence Brown July 26, 2015 at 17:00 #

    Absolutely superb reportage – a real insight into how Newham’s council committee’s operate – a mixture of amateurism, naivety, misogyny, tribalism and an utter contempt for Newham’s electorate by most of the participants is clearly evident. The women who spoke up and spoke out, were speaking for us, and my thanks to them for at least making an effort to confront RW and his cronies. It’s that air of entitlement – the fact that some of them didn’t even understand or question the clear difference between being an employee and being a councillor that gets up my nose, let alone the cost – But then RW and company are perfectly happy to consult on savings of £50 million, whilst taking more money from Newham residents, with no consultation or justification. I just hope somehow this gets legally challenged – But I won’t hold my breath.

  7. Kevin Mansell July 27, 2015 at 11:26 #

    You can argue about the timing, but I think local government needs a proper salary structure for Members and with that goes a pension. If you believe in devolution, which this government at least pays lip service too, and is now upping the ante with the regional devolution of budgets held centrally, you have to get people with the right skills in key positions.
    The question at the heart of it is whether you can get a special allowance and be expected to hold down another job. I would have though that is difficult for Cabinet Leads but the question is what is a fair remuneration. If we assume the Mayor is a full time position then £81,000 is not excessive. I presume £32,000 must be for a three day week- seems about right- but I don’t know.
    When I finished as a Councillor after one term with a young family, I was acutely aware that it was not easily sustainable to be a full-time manager in local government elsewhere, and be a chair of a committee or sub committee, if I was to do a good job in an elected role. I wouldn’t expect the Members of today to think any differently.

    • Birdman July 27, 2015 at 11:45 #

      Kevin, the fact is that at the moment they are not paid salaries, they are paid allowances. John Gray argues quite reasonably in his blog that if they wanted, members could pay a percentage into a private pension pot. The move to cabinet type councils and full time members happened a long time ago and the eligibility for the LGPS that was stopped by the last government was a relatively new entitlement which many councillors across the country did not sign up to anyway. You are right that there needs to be a discussion at a national level about how councillors are remunerated but that does not alter the fact that what Robin has done is outrageous and probably unlawful. It is a disgraceful act, and to ignore the recommendation of the O&S committee makes a mockery of what little democracy was left in Newham. The two constituency Labour Party membership should now make every effort to bring these greed soaked leeches to account. I won’t hold my breath but what John Gray and others like Kay Scoresby are doing is a good start.

  8. Birdman July 27, 2015 at 11:50 #

    Kevin, one more thing. You assume £81k for a full time mayor is not excessive. I think your assumption is entirely wrong and to that amount you must also add various allowances and expenses that Robin claims for other duties. So much for a full time post. I am old enough to remember that elected mayors were only supposed to be in post for a maximum of two terms but like a version of Putin, Robin and others changed the rules so he could stay on a very profitable gravy train without achieving anything for the people of Newham. He is a disgrace and not worth a third of what he is paid.

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