Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-416)
COUNCILLOR PETER MOLE AND COUNCILLOR LINDA GREEN
TUESDAY 14 MAY 2002
400. You could say that they have been there a long time and there must have been few people who were rather relieved to see them go. Is that fair?
(Councillor Mole) One was the Leader of the Council, I might add. I think people have hung on and, with the new system arriving, we are discussing time to leave more than we did in the past. The answer to your question is that people are leaving because of the new system.
401. So they are leaving because of the increased work load rather than because they cannot balance full-time working and being a councilor? They are leaving because the work load has increased?
(Councillor Mole) The answer to that question is that people were not coming on to the council; they could not fit a full-time job in with being on the council. You made the comment about the unemployed and retired people coming on to a council. Councils have been full of these people for years. I would be a fool to sit here and say that is not the position. That is what is happening and it is still happening. My daughter of 36 would love to be a member of the council but cannot because she is a full-time worker and mother and she could not fit it in. She cannot see that as anywhere to go in the future. We really need to make sure those things are opened up.
402. Is that not the fault of local councillors leaders, that they insist on having meetings that take place 9.30 in the morning instead of at a more realistic time in the evening because they would rather go to meetings during the day? That is a way of excluding people.
(Councillor Mole) There is that danger and I have always argued against night time meetings. We employ officers from 8 o'clock in the morning. If we are serious about having a full ratio of workers on the council, we cannot expect somebody to start work at 9 o'clock and wait until 10 o'clock at night.
403. I would expect the opposite and for that to be more flexible.
(Councillor Mole) There are 200,000 people out there who really want access to those officers. We cannot have it both ways if we are going to be professional. This is a hobbyhorse of mine, by the way. We have £200 million budget in Gateshead. We run the police and part of the airport. If we are a big business doing that, we cannot expect people to do a shift at workand coming in at 6 o'clock at night for meetings. They would not see their families. We cannot run a business of that size with night meetings. We should really structure it so that people can earn a decent living and run the local authority. It is a big business. We are the biggest business in Gateshead.
Chairman: If you just look across the river to Newcastle and go back to the 1930s, they ran a huge number of extra services compared to the ones councils run now and they did it mainly with evening meetings, did they not?
404. There is a gender issue here as well A young woman would prefer to see her family during the day and maybe go to a meeting in the evening. It is in the early evening that men see their children, by and large. I think your comment may reflect the composition of the council being predominantly male.
(Councillor Mole) It is predominantly male and I find that unacceptable. You will read that in the articles I have written. It is because of the way things are run. Linda Green is now trying to make sure that there are child minding and creche facilities for mothers who come in during the day time. We have to make all that open but we cannot expect people to do a full-time job and run a £200 million business.
405. Are you saying that it can only be professional councillors?
(Councillor Mole) I think there need to be the facilities open to those people. I think we need to get into industry and to tell industry that if you are really serious about being a partnership in the community, those people who work should be given some time off to come into public life and to be school governors. Being a chairman of school governors is nearly a full-time job. I am a Director of Newcastle Airport. In our papers we insist that people who want to go into public life are given time off. We should be talking to the CBI about things like this.
406. Could I ask Councillor Mole not to go on the defensive about saying "no" to evening meetings. I do not think that the majority of young men or women, and particularly women and those with families, would thank any of us around this table for encouraging night time meetings and it is certainly a problem getting women into parliament. I think we need to have professional, full-time councillors. The next question is related: how you think we can increase the prestige of local councillors?
(Councillor Mole) We increase the prestige of local councillors by actually accepting and recognising what they do. For too long we have had bad press in local government and I think every politician is probably at their lowest ebb outside. We have looked at the results of general elections and local elections. We have just had a local election in Gateshead which was an all-postal ballot and we had a 60 per cent return. I think that is what we should be heading towards. These things raise the prestige and interest of politics. I would advocate a compulsory vote but I would probably get knocked on the head for that. The reason that people are not interested in it is because of the bad press and because the press picks on things. I think the press has a lot do with why we are where we are. We really need to make sure that people take part in that, and that includes voting.
407. Forgive me for interrupting, but what can we do to increase the prestige? What could government do? Have you any ideas?
(Councillor Green) As a mother and as a grandmother, I had difficulty when I first became a councillor. I needed child care and the meetings were at night time. Some days I had difficulty in fitting things in. You have got to realise that when you become a councillor everything changes. It is not a guaranteed job. There is no guaranteed income. I could be there for four years and then that is it. If I had a job and a pension, I would think before becoming a councillor. We have to make people realise that this is a job worth doing and if you work at it, then it is.
408. Talking of pensions and allowances, what are the levels now paid to backbench and executive members? Do you think these adequately reflect their new roles?
(Councillor Mole) It depends, and I think there should have been a national panel. All these little groupings in councils and boroughs, one in Birmingham and one in Gateshead, are determining what people do. There should have been a national panel that identified groupings like county councils.
409. What are your backbenchers and executive members receiving?
(Councillor Mole) A backbencher receives £8,000 per annum; a cabinet member receives £12,000 on top of that.
410. That is irrespective of the meetings they attend?
(Councillor Mole) Yes.
Chairman: So a cabinet member receives £20,000.
411. Has the differential between backbenchers and cabinet members caused any problems?
(Councillor Mole) No. I go back again to the people who are working. We did our homework on that and said that for a backbench councillor the first four hours per week are voluntary for an elected member. When somebody tapped on my door at four in the morning, that was taken into consideration. In Gatesheadand I cannot speak for the rest of the countrybackbenchers are satisfied with the differential because of the workload of a cabinet member in comparison to a community champion.
412. Finally, it is very important that we have proper pension arrangements in place. Can you tell me what the effect of the new pension arrangements is?
(Councillor Mole) The ones for cabinet and scrutiny I find derisory, to be honest with you. When I am talking to colleagues in council who are non-cabinet and non-scrutiny, they look at me as though they are classed as second-class citizens. They are still losing pension rights as we speak because once you take time off work to go to a council meeting, you lose wages and so you lose pension rights. I do not find it wrong that the people who clean my office are in a pension scheme. They are part time and do not work as many hours as a non-cabinet member but they are pensioned because they are on the staff of the council. There is nothing wrong with the comparison between what they are paid to be taken off to give them a pension.
413. Pensions really are deferred wages, are they not? Is it not possible that you could make the allowances that bit higher and then assume that people will make their own pension arrangements out of those allowances?
(Councillor Mole) When I was 25, I never thought about a pension. I thought I was going to be around for the next 60 years. I am panicking now! I did not think about it. I have been paying National Insurance since I came on the Council in 1976 and I have paid my taxes but I am not getting a pension. I think that local authorities could do this quite simply by taking it out and putting it into the Local Government Pension Fund.
414. Does that mean you would have a reduction in the money spent on services? I think we do need pensions for councillors and I do not see any MPS saying that they would give up their pensions. Can you tell us where the money will come from? Would it come out of the money that otherwise would go to services?
(Councillor Mole) I think it would come out the same as it does for the staff. I consider myself part and parcel of the 11,000 staff in Gateshead; it is just that I was elected to get there and not appointed. The answer is "yes".
415. Could I speak about the codes of conduct for councillors? Is that an improvement on what there was before? Was a new code of conduct necessary?
(Councillor Green) Yes, I think it was because there has been a lot of abuse in the past and the code of conduct makes everybody realise that we are accountable and answerable. We have just brought in a new code of conduct and everybody is signing new agreements. I think it is valuable.
(Councillor Mole) I think there should be a code of conduct in everything, in every walk of life. It should be addressed in the right way, and it has been. Because of its newness, it has brought an awareness to elected members as well. The answer to the question is: yes, I believe that it has improved things and it should have been changed.
416. You would not agree with the comment that it has created a great deal of uncertainty with councillors not knowing where they are going because the categories are so broad now?
(Councillor Mole) They are broad but one of the reasons the National Association exists is to sit down over a weekend and talk about those issues and discuss them. That is one of the issues that we really need to address. We are going through a programme now about the change in the code of conduct. We will be talking about that in the next month in Wales.
Chairman: Thank you both very much for your evidence.