A number of years ago now, a global financial crisis came about, largely because banks across the world had overreached in pursuit of ever larger profits. The economic meltdown which we have been dealing with ever since was started by the greed of the private banking sector. So it never ceases to amaze me when people seek to blame the public sector for the problem – one which we have only ever tried to fix.
Accusations of “fat cats” and overpaid directors at councils are easy to throw around, and they are often believed by those who hear them – it’s disappointing that the people who make the allegations sometimes actually have very little experience of the reality of managing a complex organisation like a local authority. And, even worse, the allegations often just aren’t supported by the truth – but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Similar thoughts came to my mind when Liberal Democrat Councillor Carl Cashman made a series of claims about senior officer pay at our last Council meeting – in particular, he mentioned that Knowsley had been included in a list of high-paying councils which had been published by the self-proclaimed Taxpayers’ Alliance. The Taxpayers’ Alliance is a pressure group which is known for its anti-public sector views. It’s not the first time that the Lib Dems have sided with the right wing of politics, and I doubt it will be the last. Let’s not forget that the financial challenges we face in Knowsley are almost entirely down to the cuts agreed by a Conservative and Lib Dem Coalition.
But what’s even worse is that the Taxpayers’ Alliance figures, and the list which the Lib Dems have adopted, are simply wrong. The list includes wrong information and incorrect calculations, and came up with a figure that was complete nonsense. If Councillor Cashman had bothered to carry out even a brief check of the figures, he would have known this, but again why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
He has repeated his mistake by publishing a recent blog in which he claims that Councillors are creating well-paid jobs so that they can put their “mates” on the gravy train. He appears to be saying that Councillors in Knowsley are appointing each other to well-paid Council jobs – if that is what he means, then he is 100% wrong and he is deliberately misleading the public. Knowsley Councillors are not employees of the Council and the law does not allow them to have Knowsley Council jobs.
Perhaps by “mates” he means the Council’s senior officers – if that is what he is saying, then the Council does not employ any officer because they are a “mate”, officers are employed based on their experience and skills and through approved and transparent processes. To suggest differently is disrespectful to those Council staff who work hard to serve the residents of our Borough. But again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
We need good people to make sure we’re delivering good services for local residents, all at the best possible value for money. We ask our senior staff to take on a large number of complex and difficult challenges every day – taking responsibility for vital services which directly impact on the welfare of local people, the future prosperity of the whole area, and the health, security and quality of life of individuals living here. Any reasonable observer would agree these are huge responsibilities, and they are given only to those individuals with the correct skills and experience – and of course anybody who carries such responsibility is entitled to expect a salary to reflect it. This is, of course, the case in all local authorities. In Knowsley, the salaries we pay are in line with, and in some cases lower than, our neighbouring local authorities.
The Coalition and Conservative Governments since 2010 have dealt Knowsley the most savage budget cuts of any local authority in the country. With cuts to our budget of over £100m, we have been forced to look at every way possible to save money. Senior management costs have not been exempt from that – in fact, this was one of the first areas we looked at. We’ve actually cut our management costs in half since 2010 and have agreed a clear policy of ensuring that the cost of senior officer salaries never exceeds 3% of our total expenditure. In other words, more than 97% of our spending goes on non-management costs. I think that’s the right balance and I’m happy that we now have an appropriately sized team of highly skilled, highly committed professionals, whose expertise brings so much to the council and our borough.
In addition, I’m really proud that we’ve managed our budget so that there will be not a single compulsory redundancy at the council during this financial year.
And when it comes to Councillor Cashman’s claims about how the Council treats lower paid staff, not only has he forgotten that his own political party voted to cut their jobs, he has also conveniently (or deliberately?) forgotten that our lowest paid staff now receive the real Living Wage, which is paid at a higher rate than the Government’s watered down version.
Introducing the Living Wage in Knowsley was a financial challenge for the Council, but one that I and my fellow councillors felt was a really important way of supporting our lowest paid staff. After all, they’re facing challenging financial times, too. And one of the reasons we could pay the Living Wage was because we had already reduced our senior officer costs so much.
I should add to all this, by the way, that Knowsley councillors haven’t been exempt from cuts. My colleagues and I in the Labour Party have always agreed that we must take our share – which is why we took the joint decision to reduce the number of Councillors in the borough by 29% (down from 63 to 45) in 2016.
I know that all of Knowsley’s Councillors, senior managers and staff are working tirelessly in very challenging circumstances. Knowing how hard they work and how committed they are to this borough, I am confident that we’re getting great value for money.
I think it’s time that people stopped treating these people as targets – anybody with any sense knows who the real enemy is, and it’s not the people who work every day to ensure that the people of Knowsley get the best possible deal!