The salaries of senior Wrexham councillors are to remain at the higher level for the time being, with calls for such decisions to be taken out of the hands of councils.
Described as a “controversial area” by the council leader, the topic of senior councillor salaries were once again on the agenda at yesterday’s Full Council meeting.
The report presented to members had been seven months in the making, with an initial report on councillor pay debated in March. After a heated debate the report was bounced to members of the Democratic Scrutiny Committee in July.
Currently there are two levels of payment available for members of the Executive Board, which are £29,100 at level one and £26,200 at level two. Currently those on the Executive Board, excluding the Council Leader and Deputy Leader, are paid at the higher level one salary rather than the lower level two.
There are also two levels of renumeration for committee chairs, which are £22,100 for level one and £20,100 at level two.
During July’s meeting members of the Democratic Services Committee, all but one councillor supported a recommendation proposing that: “Then setting the level of Senior and Civic Salaries to Members, the lowest level of remuneration as set out by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW) be paid achieving a total annual saving of £41,700.”
Addressing yesterday’s meeting Cllr Malcolm King, chairman of the Democratic Services Committee explained that during July’s meeting there was an agreement that there is a “need to set an example” when there are so many people struggling to make ends meet.
He said: “The committee agreed to recommend the council adopt the lowest level. Therefore I would like to move that the council support the recommendation and adopt the lowest level of senior and civic salary payment.”
The recommendation was approved by Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Dana Davies.
However Council Leader Mark Pritchard said he would not be supporting the committee’s recommendation, stating that the topic of councillor pay is always a “controversial area”.
Previously Cllr Pritchard has spoken of his support for the Independent Renumeration Panel and its setting of council salaries. Such comments were reiterated by the council leader yesterday who stated that politicians have “no place” in setting their own salaries, describing it as ‘dangerous’.
He said: “I would like to thank Cllr King and the committee for the work they have done within this area. It is a controversial area always has been and always will be. Member allowance and councillor pay is a hot topic – it’s front page, Wrexham.com, The Leader always will run with it. They always have done and always will do.
“We are public life and we are there to be challenged and scrutinised and so that should continue and long may it continue.
“Coming back to recommendation, I won’t support it, but will move and amendment and I will give the reasons why I won’t support it and then move amendment.
“The Independent Renumeration Panel was set up in 2008 and I was delighted at that time, along with other a lot of elected members in this chamber that it was set up. The reasons it was set up was to take the decision making of salaries for councillors, chairs, vice-chairs, scrutiny members, out of hands of politicians and should be out of hands of politicians.
“We as politicians should have no place in that arena, it’s dangerous, it can be corrupt and thats why I fully supported the panel and will continue to support them for as long as they continue to be in place. I hope they continue to be in place for perpetuity.
“They set the salaries and they set them at a level that I think is a fair level, and that’s my opinion.
“When you look at the work elected members do, I’m not on about Executive Board members. I’m on about elected members at grassroots, they’re not just a member representing their constituents. They sit in all the committees, they come to the council, they are governors, go on committees within their community. There’s a lot of work involved with just a councillor.”
Cllr Pritchard continued to comment on the press coverage about councillor pay, stating: “If you read everything the press said, I think they’d mislead you. But if you’re a true councillor, you work hard, you represent your community and you come to the council to go on committees – and I think that’s what it’s all about. I don’t think anyone here would disagree with that.
“Come back to the panel, I don’t think that we as elected members should make this decision. We really shouldn’t.
“The Independent Renumeration Panel have come to Wrexham this month. They have met me, chairs, deputy leader and took our opinions and listened to what we had to say. They’ve gone across Wales and they will make a decision late December or early next year.
“The reason I won’t support anything today is because it would be foolish for us to make a decision now and then reverse that decision when those findings are published.
“If they make a decision that our salaries should be lower, I would respect it and rightly so and so we should, it’s in their gift and long may it be in their gift.”
An amendment to the scrutiny committee’s recommendation was also moved by Cllr Pritchard, which proposed that members accept the principles of not setting their own salaries and they will call upon the Independent Renumeration Panel to remove discretion from local authorities to pay different senior salaries for lead members, scrutiny chairs and mayor and deputy mayor.
This was seconded by leader of the Wrexham Independent Group, Cllr David A Bithell.
There was challenge to Cllr Pritchard’s amendment, with Plaid Cymru’s Carrie Harper describing the vote on reducing the salaries for senior councillors as a “key moral test for all of us”.
Referencing the meeting earlier this summer, Cllr Harper said: “It was quite a wide-ranging debate and the overwhelming feeling was that when facing difficult decisions, there are some that be quite straightforward. It is right for this council to lead by example.
“The recommendation was supported by all but one councillor.
“I request we have a recorded vote. It is important to understand the history of this, it was here in March, discussed in July and it’s now September. It deserves a decision.”
Such comments were echoed by Cllr Dana Davies, who said she was “shocked” by the council leader’s amendment and noted that previously councillors had voted on their pay levels before the Independent Reenumeration Panel was set-up.
She added: “It would result in huge savings over the term of the council. We are in the business of delivering services.
“From what happened in the General Election, it doesn’t appear that local authorities are going to get changes from the massive cuts. We have to lead by example, this report is about doing the right thing.
“We have an opportunity to send a message to the people of Wrexham and that we want to save as many services as possible.”
Newly elected Labour councillor, Brian Apsley questioned “why shouldn’t all councillors make sacrifices to allow savings to be made”, adding that it could improve the public perception of the council.
There were also comments from the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Rob Walsh, who said that while he agreed with the “sentiments which have been stated with regard to councillors paying their fair share”, he did not like the idea of two pay levels – calling for the decision making to be taken out of councillor hands.
He also noted that it is a case of “wait and see” what the results of the upcoming Independent Renumeration Panel are.
A recorded vote, meaning councillors are asked alphabetically if they are for or against or recommendation, saw 31 councillors vote in favour of Cllr Prichard’s amendment.
The remaining 16, which consisted of aligned Labour and Plaid Cymru members, voted against.
A second vote then took place, with head of corporate and customer services, Trevor Coxon explaining that when an amendment is carried, it has to be put to the vote again as it becomes the substantive motion and is therefore subject to amendment.
There was some confusion over the vote, with Cllr King querying why the initial recommendation from the Democratic Services Committee was no longer being voted on.
Mr Coxon explained that unless the original recommendation was proposed as an amendment to the motion, it could not be voted on – inviting Cllr King to amend the new motion.
Branding it a “disgrace to democracy” Cllr King attempted to proposed the initial recommendation of the committee was made into an amendment for Cllr Pritchard’s amendment, however was told this was not possible.
The new recommendation (which had started its life as an amendment) again saw 31 councillors vote in favour and 16 vote against – meaning the current levels of senior councillors, scrutiny chairs and civic salaries will remain the same for now, and the vote on the original proposal never took place.
As part of the amendment the 31 councillors also voted in favour of accepting the principles of not setting their own salaries and call upon IRP to pay differing senior salaries for lead member and senior salaries.
Members will also await the comments from the Independent Renumeration Panel in their upcoming report.
There is no firm date as to when the findings of the Independent Renumeration Panel’s report will be revealed, however it is expected to be at the end of this year / early 2018.