Mark Wallace: The Local Government Association's efforts to keep council allowances secret show that some have learnt nothing from Michael Martin's demise
By Mark Wallace of The TaxPayers' Alliance.
As Harry reported on this blog on Thursday, it is the time of year when the Local Government Association publish their annual survey of the scale of the allowances dished out to councillors at every local authority in England. And lo, it came to pass – with one notable difference from the information released in previous years. There was no detail at all.
Whereas previously the LGA had published the detailed information for almost every council, allowing taxpayers to compare what their Councillors, Leaders, or Committee Chairmen gets paid or to contrast the number of special allowances handed out between in different areas, this year there were simply the bare, national averages and totals, with no sign of the source data they were drawn from.
Now, I know what the LGA would say if we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance were to do this – they would bitterly complain that it was shoddy research, or even that we were making the numbers up. Of course, the TPA doesn’t do this, as it would not just be poor research practice, it would make the data effectively useless for ordinary taxpayers around the country. The great thing about our Council Spending Uncovered reports is that they feature that full, official detail for every council in the country so everyone can see what kind of deal they get.
In this case, the LGA’s aim seems to have been precisely to obscure the facts, prevent proper scrutiny and stop ordinary taxpayers around the country being able to make comparison to judge what kind of deal they get.
It is very revealing that even the LGA, which regularly professes to be proud of all local councils, and which is charged with standing up for local government, is apparently too ashamed of the above inflation growth in councillors’ allowances that they have attempted to keep it secret.
I say “attempted”, because happily several sources have leaked us copies of the full data table, which can now be read by one and all on the TPA website, here (NB Excel File). As you will see, it is a very useful searchable spreadsheet, which allows you to easily assess your council’s standing by a variety of different measures. Just the kind of thing that is of interest to ConservativeHome’s readers and the taxpaying public in general, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the LGA tried to suppress it.
In this column a few weeks ago, I argued that councillors would do well to react to the MPs’ expenses crisis by becoming more transparent, in order to reassure a concerned public. Whilst some individuals have done so, and benefited from it on the doorstep, it is extremely disappointing that the body meant to represent all councillors has gone in the opposite direction and retreated into the bunker. This naturally raised eyebrows and suspicions in equal measure, doing harm to councillors rather than helping them.
In this case, the LGA’s hamfisted attempts at secrecy have failed, but that should not be the end of the matter. In future, they should change their ways, and commit to greater transparency of local government spending.
More than that, this latest incident adds further weight to the argument for councils to leave the Association altogether, saving some hefty subscription fees in the process. Instead of following my suggestion and learning the right lessons from Westminster’s horrendous experience, the LGA seem to have learned all the wrong lessons and are instead repeating the blunders that made things so much worse for Parliament. By struggling desperately to keep details of these allowances secret, they have managed to become the Michael Martin of local government.
The arrogance, wilful blindness and stubborn pomposity of the Speaker left Parliament’s reputation in ruins by the time he was sacked. Going by this recent incident, councils would do well to throw the LGA onto the same scrapheap before they leave the reputation of local government in a similar state.