Last night, I took a trip to an extraordinary meeting of the Oversight and Scrutiny Management Committee, at Wokingham Borough Council. I know it sounds like a fun day out for a local politics anorak — and being just such an anorak, it was a fascinating excursion!
A little background: the meeting was called to deal with the council executive’s decision to pay an extra £6,000 per year allowance to councillors chosen to serve as Non-Executive Directors of the new wholly-0wned companies that have been set up to manage certain council services. There are three of them: Optalis, to manage adult social care; Wokingham Enterprises Limited, to manage the fabled town centre regeneration; and Wokingham Housing Limited, to provide affordable houses.
Now, without wishing to go into too much detail on the companies themselves (though I have serious reservations about profiteering out of social care and vulnerable people who need a home), the issue was that the council had previously said these roles would not be paid, and the change had been sprung on councillors with zero notice. There was a very worrysome appearance of “jobs for the boys”.
The debate was fascinating. Particularly the cross-examination of council leader David Lee. He didn’t seem at all happy about being challenged in committee, but his position was that if you want the best people to fill these roles then you have to pay them. Which isn’t an altogether unreasonable stance, but it didn’t explain why local government officers (council employees) were paid no extra to perform the same functions, which were outside of their job.
One of my favourite exchanges, between Cllr Lee and Lib Dem leader Prue Bray, was as follow:
Cllr Bray: “Is it not true that the companies have indemnity insurance for directors?“
Cllr Lee: “You can’t indemnify against criminality.“
Cllr Bray: “Surely we wouldn’t want to pay councillors to commit criminal acts either?“
Cllr Lee’s back was towards the public gallery, but I am told the expression on his face was priceless. I can quite imagine.
When it was put to a vote, the result was not a surprise. The committee, with a majority of Tory members, approved the decision of the executive. Beyond this, there was some discussion of the process used, and in future referring the amount to an independent remuneration committee.
So the result was as expected. But it was the body language and reaction of the Conservative councillors which was the more interesting part. For the most part, they were either scared or enraptured of Cllr Lee. There were a few, whose modesty to save I shall not name, who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the process and the idea of payment for such roles. Which I can understand — after all, if the Big Society is about people volunteering in the community, how does this gel with it.
But it is Cllr Ian Pittock whose response most intrigues me. Whilst his peers were either scared or eager for a pat on the head, he was not. He was the only Tory to vote against the council executive, and he actually challenged Cllr Lee. There was one remarkable part where, David Lee all but came out and threatened Cllr Pittock directly.
As we all left the committee room, at 10pm in the evening, someone commented to me that “He’ll be in the shit tomorrow!“. And he probably will. But the best part: he just doesn’t care.
I’m rather impressed.