Ben Farrugia, the Deputy Director of Research at the Taxpayers Alliance, welcomes plans for disclosure of Town Hall pay
Local government is perhaps the most opaque part of the public sector. While departments and some quangos have tentatively embraced a degree of openness about their spending, a reluctant group of councils appear particularly hostile to the notion of public scrutiny. The TaxPayers’ Alliance has been battling this hostility for five years now, shining a light onto council spending and pushing for local authorities to become the model for transparent government. Some – to their great credit – have taken up the challenge. Sadly, most still have not.
The campaign for greater transparency in local government spending took a significant step this year when all major parties committed themselves to the cause. Provoked by public consternation at soaring town hall pay packages, the Government has now begun to add weight to that commitment.
A proposed amendment to the local government accounting regulations (which can be read in full here, pages 10-13) will require all local authorities to replace the current remuneration tables (which just list the number of employees in certain wage brackets) with full details of the remuneration of all employees earning over £50,000. The extent of that detail is spot on: names, salary, bonuses, expenses, compensation payments, pension entitlement and all other emoluments.
It’s an excellent piece of legislation, for which the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) deserves applause. Just as this Government did so much for transparency with the passing of the Freedom of Information Act, this statutory instrument will take that achievement even further. It’s also a great success for those groups who have long been demanding that local authority remuneration be opened up to public scrutiny. Even though the public sector as a whole still has some way to go in terms of transparency, town halls have become notable by their failure to keep up with even the modest improvements made elsewhere. Most quangos, agencies and departments have provided some broad remuneration details for ages, yet council’s continue to refuse to publish theirs voluntarily. This is why the draft amendment is so important and necessary.
But – and this is a significant but – the amendment is not yet law. Currently the statutory instrument is in the draft stage (scheduled for enactment in December). Earlier this year DCLG opened up the proposed amendment to consultation. Which would be fine, except for the fact that the majority of those invited into the consultation (page 7 of the document linked here) are exactly those that have deployed endless obfuscation to frustrate transparency in the past; local authority chief executives, the LGA and SOLACE, to name but a few. Among the addressees, it’s the unions that present the best hope of having argued for the draft amendment to go forward unaltered. No group that actually speaks directly for council tax payers – such as the TPA or one of the Residents and Ratepayers’ Associations – were invited to contribute.
There is a massive risk then that the law which DCLG puts forward in December will be a pale shadow of the excellent draft they have today. This must not be allowed to happen. The self interested concerns of chief executives must not deny the public of their right to know. The Government has done well responding to the public’s demands by drafting a law which will bring local authorities up to the same standard as everyone else. They must now stand firm in the face of opposition. The public, media, political parties – and readers here – must now be vigilant, encouraging the Government and their councils to enact the law as it currently stands. Defeat must not be snatched from the jaws of victory.