I am given to understand from Freedom of Information requests received that local government expenses, in particular our spending on non-salary benefits provided to senior officers, are about to fall under the glare of the media. My instinct is that there isn’t going to be a huge story here – especially not compared to the Parliamentary revelations – but I suspect some senior officers do feel that they are paid less than ‘the going rate’ because of perceived political acceptability, and may be ‘topping up’ with expenses a little more generous than the voters would judge reasonable – especially since the salaries already look high to someone on an average kind of wage.
What is and isn’t acceptable on expenses? Speaking as someone who’s never had more than a reasonably priced evening meal, a good value hotel, and a cattle steerage second class train ticket paid for, I’m not sure I have a very good grasp of this, but let’s have some examples.
- A Chief Executive is recruited by Barnet Council from Durham. Should the Council help them with the costs of moving house to ensure they take the job? If so, up to what point? Removal men? Conveyancing? Stamp duty? Redecoration? Cost of owning two homes until the old one is sold? Moat cleaning? I’d be inclined to take a fairly hard line on this, but then it is very expensive to move house.
- A Chief Executive goes to a conference held in a dubious hotel, and the organisers have secured a deal that delegates can stay over at the hotel for £40 a night. The Chief Executive feels they won’t get the benefit of the conference as they have stayed in that hotel before and had a bad night’s sleep and issues getting their room cleaned on arrival. They identify another hotel locally that costs £70 a night and is acceptable. Should the Council pay the £70, or contribute £40, or split the difference?
- A Chief Executive is going from an authority in Yorkshire to a conference in London, and the train journey will take three hours. They would prefer to get a first class ticket for £180 rather than a standard class ticket for £100. They argue that they will be able to do three hours’ work on their laptop in first class, but wouldn’t be able to work in standard class. Since their time is worth over £27 an hour, should the Council stump up the extra?
- A Senior Officer undertakes a Masters in Public Administration in order to improve their skills, network with other public sector professionals, and advance their career prospects. What proportion of their time off for examinations and lectures should be paid, unpaid, or taken as leave? Should the Council make any contribute to their course fees? If so, should some of this be paid out of a central pot as the benefits accrue to the public sector more widely if they take an external promotion?
An alternative to some of this to which I alluded above, is whether local government should begin setting a flat rate for certain costs and ‘split the difference’ to encourage staff to be more careful with the taxpayers’ money. I don’t have an instinctive sense however of whether it would be understood and accepted by the taxpayers, or whether it is sufficiently complicated that it might look like a fiddle. Let me illustrate and you can decide!
For example, if I were to attend Local Government Conference in Harrogate this year my current expense arrangements* would pay for my train and accommodation, and allow me to spend up to around £17 on an evening meal and claim it back from the Council. Alternatively if I just go for a chip butty (which I might well – I’m quite frugal and I like chips) I could claim back the £1.80. What if there were a mid-point, say £10, above and below which costs and savings were shared? So that if I have the £1.80 chip butty, I can nonetheless claim £6. On the other hand, if I have the slap-up £17 dinner, I only get to claim £13.50 of it? In a more extreme scenario, what if I travelled to an event on a cheap coach service rather than a train?
It strikes me that we already do something a bit similar with mileage allowance – it’s clearly more profitable for someone with an efficient car than someone with a gas-guzzler, and is even paid at a low-ish rate to cyclists, for whom there’s surely little marginal cost of using their bicycles.
Over to you.
* Disclosure – I generally claim for evening meals when I’m away at something, but usually not for lunch which I reason I would have spent money on even if I was going out from the office to buy something. I’ve only ever twice in my local government career spent anything close to the allowed maximum.