Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers' Alliance welcomes the Conservative leader's pledge to bring transparency to public sector pay. He sees it as a sign of a changing public mood on remuneration in local and national government.
The controversial issue of public sector – and particularly town hall – pay has hit the headlines again this week, although for once some of the news is encouraging. Whilst some council bosses continue to rake in surprisingly large amounts of money, it seems that politicians in Westminster are increasingly ready to make the remuneration of senior staff entirely transparent.
The council officer in the headlines was once again Kent County Council’s Chief Executive, Peter Gilroy, who was reported in several newspapers to have sold back holiday time to the council for a cool £12,000. Mr Gilroy, who our Town Hall Rich List revealed as enjoying a remuneration of £255,000 in 2007-08, has long fought against the principle of having his pay and perks published for taxpayers to scrutinise, but it seems that the details are coming out bit by bit.
Naturally, when such large sums of taxpayers’ money are involved – and when the people receiving them have tried to stop taxpayers finding out about it – there is a lot of public interest. Certainly in Kent there is also a lot of anger from taxpayers who do not feel they get a level of service that justifies such generous rewards for Mr Gilroy.
Unfortunately, this debate has long been deliberately blurred by a culture of convenient secrecy on the part of councils. Before the TPA started using Freedom of Information requests to do comprehensive national surveys of Town Hall remuneration, councils dismissed suggestions that they were handing out excessive amounts as unfair and untrue.
As soon as we started compiling our first Town Hall Rich List, some councils began deliberately abusing the terms of the Freedom of Information Act to reveal as little as possible in order to try to scupper the project. Whilst many have since accepted that taxpayers have a right to see where their money is spent, others continue to obfuscate or even pretend that they have received none of our letters and emails demanding they release the information.
In Kent, for example, taxpayers still do not know exactly what Mr Gilroy is paid because the council will only publish broad bands of £10,000, meaning that the figure of £255,000 is a fair estimate derived from the KCC figure of “£250,000-£260,000”. Despite being the people who fund councils and the people whom councils are meant to serve, many taxpayers are still treated with disdain when it comes to transparency and accountability in local government.
That is why it is encouraging that over the last week David Cameron has pledged more transparency in town hall pay, and a committee of MPs have started an investigation into senior public sector pay and perks.
Mr Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Spring Forum in Cheltenham last Sunday featured two pledges that were particularly encouraging on local government. He promised to publish the salaries of every public sector employee whose remuneration exceeds £150,000, and he promised to publish every item of public expenditure over £25,000.
Both of these proposals would apply to Town Halls, and would mark a fantastic development in accountability to taxpayers. As the speech made clear, transparency in senior staff pay is particularly important strategically – frontline workers and public sector unions will certainly never accept pay restraint if senior staff are cashing in large rises at the same time.
The Guardian said that the speech suggested “the TaxPayers’ Alliance is now writing Conservative Party Policy”, and it was certainly one that took on board several of our proposals, from transparency to prisons policy.
Another encouraging sign that our work has been having an influence at Westminster came this week with the first evidence session of the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into senior public sector pay. The session, at which my colleague Ben Farrugia gave evidence along with several other distinguished experts and Polly Toynbee, can be watched online here.
The inquiry, which uses the TPA’s Public Sector and Town Hall Rich Lists as a major foundation, is the first occasion for quite some time that the issue has been properly scrutinised by a Select Committee. It is a strong sign of the changing times – after a decade where Gordon Brown would proudly boast about public sector pay rises, concern is now widespread that at the top it has become excessive.
The news about Peter Gilroy in Kent this week was essentially that a senior council official, earning over ten times the average salary, was revealed to be getting thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money that the taxpayers themselves did not know about. With the growing public concern, the Parliamentarians’ investigation and now David Cameron’s promise of transparency, perhaps one day very soon the fact that such a thing could ever have happened will seem ridiculous.