Monday 16 April 2012

Soch, soch! It's councillor expenses time

One of the aspects of language which keeps Cneifiwr amused is how different languages perceive the noises made by animals. Take the humble pig, for example. English pigs go 'oink, oink' in their refined, rather effete way. Swedish pigs, on the other hand, say 'nuff, nuff', and German pigs say 'Grunz, Grunz'.

Welsh pigs, of course, are much more realistic and say 'soch, soch', a sound which English pigs, incidentally, find very hard to make. The other fascinating thing about Welsh pigs is that, in common with things like bees, children, mice and most types of tree, the language reasonably expects that if you come across one, there are sure to be more lurking nearby, and so the base form 'moch' means pigs, whereas if you want to specify one pig, you have to add something on to the end and say 'mochyn'.

Before anyone says this is rude to the English, it is important to understand that pigs traditionally get a pretty good write-up in Wales. There are villages with pigs in their names, and the people of Angelsey are sometimes known as "moch Môn", or Angelsey pigs, although not always kindly.

But it's time to confess that in true gutter-blog style, the title of this piece is rather misleading because, on the whole, Carmarthenshire's councillors don't have their snouts in the trough; in fact some of them are probably too abstemious for their own good. As always, there appear to be a few exceptions, however.

Let's start with allowances. The basic allowance for a county councillor is currently £13,868. When the allowance was increased a couple of years ago, some councillors decided to forgo the increase, and so whereas quite a lot trouser the full amount, others don't. Here, as in other respects, People First leader Siân Caiach is very thrifty, and takes just £13,029, the lowest of any councillor.

Swimming against the tide of public opinion, Cneifiwr thinks that allowances need to be rather more generous if we want councils to be representative, with more people of working age and more men and women with school age children. Perhaps one way of doing that would be to pay much lower allowances to people entitled to a pension and rather more generous allowances to younger people to compensate for loss of earnings. But that's not going to happen, is it?

Next we have so-called "special responsibility allowances". This is where the water starts to become a little murkier. At the top end, the council leader is paid a handsome £35,462 on top of her basic allowance. Her deputy, Labour's Kevin Madge, gets £18,600 on top of his basic allowance. Other executive board members receive allowances which vary slightly from £17,300 up to £18,600.

The patronage system really starts to kick in when we get to chairs of committees, for whom the going rate is £9,700. A glance at some of the committee chairs in Carmarthenshire shows that whatever it was that landed them the extra allowance, it certainly wasn't merit.

Perhaps this is all about to change, but members of the public who have sat through a few committee meetings over the last few years will have seen several elderly and befuddled Independent councillors struggling to get to grips with procedures and the on and off switch on their microphones, sometimes with hilarious results, and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Next come travel expenses. Of course some councillors have to travel quite long distances (30 miles one way is about the maximum), and others are almost within walking distance of County Hall. Some have large, rural wards, and others have geographically compact urban wards. Not unnaturally, expenses claimed vary from nothing (e.g. Plaid leader Peter Hughes Griffiths, People First's Arthur Davies and Plaid's Mari Davies) to the top three who are streets ahead of the rest of the pack at more than £2,000 per annum.

It is worth noting that travel expenses cover only formal council meetings and those described as "approved duties". They do not cover informal meetings between councillors and the public in their communities. For the first 10,000 miles, the rate claimed is 40p per mile.

Gold, silver and bronze in the tax year 2011 went to Kevin Madge (Labour) £2,488; Tom Theophilus (Independent) £2,366; and Gwynne Wooldridge (Independent) £2,363. The runners up are all quite some way behind in the range £1,000-£1,700. These include the oldest Independent councillor, Dai Thomas, who last year clocked up £1,575 in travel expenses from his home in Penybont, about 13 miles from Carmarthen.

Perhaps they drive Chieftain tanks.

Finally, there is a subsistence allowance. Many do not claim on this at all, but leading the pack by miles once again we have Cllrs Dai Thomas and Tom Theophilus at £349 and £207 respectively.

In this regard it is also worth mentioning veteran Independent Wyn Evans whose last contested election was apparently when Ronald Reagan was in the Whitehouse. Several of his fellow Executive Board members do not claim travel or subsistence, but Wyn does. But then with just £32,000 a year to survive on as well as a pension, he probably needs the extra cash.

You can check out your councillor's allowances and expense claims here.

Soch, soch!


Anonymous said...

There we go, I knew you would want to write about Llanddarog ward at some point ;-). Wyn Evans, Independent and uncontested since the 1980s, is facing a battle with Plaid Cymru's Simon Martin. It'll be interesting (locally!).

"Perhaps one way of doing that would be to pay much lower allowances to people entitled to a pension and rather more generous allowances to younger people to compensate for loss of earnings."

Brilliant idea. So many energetic and talented working-age people wouldn't consider standing until they're retired. And then their ideas and energies often start to wither. One simple way to do it (but not the most effective) would be to take out the equivalent of the state pension from any councillor of state pension age, and share out between the young'uns.

Soch soch yn wir:

Iwan Rhys

Anonymous said...

On the subject of councillors pensions, those that have opted into the council scheme(and we don't know how many have of course)are, with a 6% contribution and a generous subsidy from the taxpayer, entitled to an annual pension calculated on their career average 'pay', which is then multiplied by the number of years service, and divided by 80. On retirement, a lump sum is payable which is three times the yearly pension. So, if a councillor has averaged £30,000 over, say 13 years, he, or she will be entitled to roughly £5000 a year and a £15,000 (by my reckoning) lump sum on retirement. Not bad eh?! For some, the gravy train never stops.

Cneifiwr said...

Thanks Anon. There was a press story a couple of years back which was based on an FOI request. At that time, if I remember rightly, over 50 of the 74 councillors had joined the scheme.

You mean there's more??? said...

You have been a bit sucked in here.

You are not happy about the expenses the elected by us claim.

In real time where does this fit in with telephone number bonuses for bankers who cannot explain why they are worth the money.


Cneifiwr said...

I disagree. If you read the piece, you will see that I think allowances should be increased to stop penalising younger people. Nearly all of the councillors are claiming either the bare minimum or nothing at all, but there are a few whose high claims stick out. In one case the expenses claimed equate to 150 trips to Carmarthen a year for an elderly councillor who rarely if ever speaks at meetings and is not on any committees.

Anonymous said...

There is definately somethibng wrong when the age profile of our council is as it is - old.

This of course will suite the officers and proably some on the executive as they can carry through policies without the need for explanation or scrutiny.

On the other hand i am suspicious of the motives of younger senior councillors who enjoy the small time politics but have never held a proper job either in the private or public sector. How can someone purport to have knowledge and experience sufficient to exercise power over the rest of us without ever knowing what it is like to have to get up in the morning and do a job of work ?

The obvious way around this is to hold council meetings and some comittee meetings in the evenings to allow working people to engage and stand.

We should not underplay the importance of the council - they have quite a lot of power over our day to day lives and are responsible for supervising a huge amount of tax payers money.

There should be an age limit on being a councillor - how can it be right that judges have to retire at 70 and yet untrained people can sit on a council, having power over our lives well into their 80s. Its just not right.

Also having scanned some of the expense claims, there seems to be a lot of unhealthy eating going on. Cant they be pursuaded to eat salads sometimes. If so they may be more alert and actually speak in meetings. Just a thought !