Direct, and other, Payments

The point of blogging being to engage, rather than merely tap out one’s own thoughts, I am having interesting debates in other places this week about Direct Payments and Individual (or in the new jargon, Personal) Budgets. This was sparked off by a post by Matthew Taylor (RSA, not Truro) here, and picked up at Stumbling and Mumbling. A simplification for those new to the terms, these are when a recipient of services in social care decides to spend the money on making their own arrangements, either by getting it in cash, or by asking the Council to provide something different at the same cost.

A brief summary of my argument is that the hopes vested in them that they will save money are overoptimistic, though they may in many cases result in people getting better value out of the money being spent on them. That said, they require an intelligent new form of procurement, vigilance against the decay of valued communal services that nobody directly chooses to ‘buy’, such as community day centres, and preparedness against the press onslaught when the Daily Mail find out what they are being used for – usually admirable things, sometimes questionable but ultimately justifiable things, and sometimes, well, homeopathy. I can’t remember as I haven’t read The Mail lately, does homeopathy cause, or cure, cancer at the moment?

Meanwhile Polly Toynbee says something about Council Chief Executives’ pay. I’m not quite clear what she thinks from the article, it appears to be that Chief Executives earn a lot, but they earn more in the private sector for equivalent-sized organisations than the public, and in any case the real pay scandal is how little the people at the bottom get in both sectors. I may, on the other hand, be paraphrasing her into something with which I agree – call it confirmation bias.

I don’t particularly want to start the argument about pay all over again, I have had it many times in other places, but just a few points.

  • I am in my thirties, with a good degree from a good university, and earn only slightly more in real terms as some of my contemporaries got as a starting salary when they decided to become lawyers, bankers (oops) and so on a decade ago. I don’t want to sound bitter about that, and in fairness I work more sociable hours and I suspect I enjoy what I do a great deal more (except the bankers, they loved it until just lately), but for all the talk in financial markets of a ‘lost decade’… well, there’s mine!
  • Comparing a Council chief executive’s pay with the Prime Minister’s is stupid, and the Taxpayers’ Alliance should have known better than to kick this off. One is an employee, the other is a politician. The correct comparison would be between the Council Chief Executive as Head of the Paid Service, and the Cabinet Secretary as Head of the Home Civil Service. Or, between the Prime Minister, and the Council Leader. Polticians always get a pay cut relative to their staff in democracies, to reflect public expectations that they are partly in the role out of a sense of duty, and to reflect the fact that their personal motives are unlikely to be primarily financial. I am not saying Council staff are mercenaries, we wouldn’t be in local government if we didn’t think there were motivating factors other than pay, but nonetheless this is our career. That the couple of hundred brightest and best should be able to expect pay around the £150k-200k mark at the peak of their career doesn’t seem entirely outlandish to me – it’s good money, but not a king’s ransom in this day and age. I am more concerned with making sure they really earn and deserve it than shaving a few thousand off here and there.
  • Also on Chief Executives, this snobbish fad for referring to them as “the so-called chief executive, or town clerk as they used to be known” has become tiresome. Birmingham isn’t a town, Buckinghamshire isn’t a town, Newham isn’t a town. Town clerks may have been the people who ran urban districts decades ago, and they are still the people in charge of town and parish councils, but Chief Executives are exactly that. It’s not self-aggrandisement, it’s an accurate description of their job (to be honest I’d go for Managing Director, but maybe I’m out of date too).
  • Much has been made recently of the increase in the public sector average wage, over and above the private sector average in recent years. I am hoping to pin down the ONS on this, because I strongly suspect it has been driven by the contracting-out of low paid work, while high-paying jobs remain in-house. For example, the simple act of a small council contracting out the cleaning of schools and offices would, on paper, massively increase the pay of that council’s staff. In reality of course, nothing would necessarily have changed.
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