Monday, 9 February 2009

Ministers push ahead with plans for councillors to vote from the pub

Labour plans could undermine trust in Lincolnshire County Council warns Giles McNeill

Councillors throughout Lincolnshire will soon be paid for voting from their sofa or from the pub, the small print of Government documents revealed this week. Labour Ministers are to push ahead with changing the law to let councillors skip town hall meetings but still cash in on their council tax-funded salaries and pensions. This is despite overwhelming public opposition to the plans in a formal consultation.

Councillors to stay put on their sofas: In July, as part of a widely-derided ‘Community Empowerment White Paper’, Labour Ministers announced plans to allow “remote” voting in town halls. Lincolnshire's councillors will not have to turn up at meetings. They will be able to vote by phone or internet, from their home, their place of work or the local pub. The White Paper also included plans to introduce free doughnuts and prize draws for voting in elections; to remove controls on town hall propaganda; and to undo anti-sleaze laws brought in to stop ‘jobs for the boys’ corruption.

Anger at Labour Government plans: The small print of the responses to the Government’s consultation, published on 26 January, reveals widespread opposition to the changes. Less than a quarter of town halls backed the plans, warning that the move “erodes public confidence in democracy” and is “lacking transparency and accountability”. The responses note that “concerns were also raised about the practicality and cost of remote attendance and voting”, and stresses that “citizens want to be able to attend public meetings and see their councillors at work.” Alarm was also raised over the increased risk of expensive legal challenges to controversial decisions, such as planning applications. But the Government has simply ignored this opposition, and says it still plans to change the law, regardless.

Green light to skip meetings as town hall salaries rocket: It is thought that permission to skip meetings is being proposed by Labour Ministers to make it easier for Labour councillors to hold down multiple jobs, on top of raking in their councillor salaries. Yet in recent years, ever since Labour’s Local Government Act 2000 and the widespread abolition of the ‘Committee’ system, councillor salaries have soared. Labour Ministers’ plans come as council tax bills from April are due to hit record levels, with the average bill in England rising by £48 to reach £1,421 a year on a Band D home (equivalent to almost £120 a month).

Giles McNeill, Conservative Candidate for Lincolnshire County Council in the Nettleham & Saxilby Division, said:
“Lincolnshire’s councillors work really hard and they have have a vital role in standing up for the many local communities that make up Lincolnshire. But local decision-making by Lincolnshire County Council must remain open, transparent and public.

“At a time when council tax bills are to hitting record levels across the country and people are working harder than ever to make ends meet, it is incredible that Labour Ministers are effectively pushing for some councillors to do less work for more money.

“I fear that Labour’s plans for armchair voting and voting from the pub will create real cynicism amongst hard-pressed taxpayers.”

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