Jonathan Isaby: Freedom of information is a weapon against town hall waste

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WE live in financially chastening times, both locally and nationally, and as a result taxpayers will be more concerned than ever that their hard-earned cash is being put to good use.

It is a sad reality that many councils are having to cut back on basic services or are raising council tax to keep themselves “in the black”, so scrutiny is needed to make sure that budgets are not being wasted and that residents are getting value for money

So this week the TaxPayers’ Alliance has published the Town Hall Rich List, a nationwide survey of employee pay and perks for every local authority. Using this, taxpayers can judge whether their town hall is up to the job and whether those in charge are making the most of their tax revenues.

Nationwide, almost 3,500 employees cost the taxpayer over £100,000 each and the enormity of the findings do not stop there. Over 350 employees cost more £150,000 (more than the Prime Minister’s salary), 106 over £200,000 and 10 over £300,000.

A methodology never used before has made this Town Hall Rich List the most accurate yet. Just looking at the salary of the employee doesn’t give anything like the full cost to the taxpayer. It is very important to include the employer’s pension contribution, any expenses incurred and redundancy payments to get the true figure.

The Yorkshire and Humber region had 207 employees who cost more than £100,000 – a middling figure compared to the other major UK regions.

Likewise the 27 officials costing more than £150,000 and the four accruing more than £200,000 are unexceptional, but now taxpayers across the region will be able to view the actions of councils and either criticise where the service is not up to snuff or lead the plaudits where costs are kept down.

This is a crucial point. The TaxPayers’ Alliance would never argue that all of these packages are necessarily undeserved and wasteful – that would plainly be ridiculous.

We would be the first to agree that challenging circumstances require good people who are expensive to hire but the emphasis must be on not tolerating a situation where a failing council continues to fork out fortunes when little is being achieved.

The problem is that such a high level of transparency has only come about after a year’s hard work and 6,000 Freedom of Information requests.

While some of the information we needed is in organisation’s annual accounts, there are many details that are not. And this is why we should be concerned about the Government’s review of the Freedom of Information Act. Any attempt to water-down the powers within the Act would be a gross betrayal of taxpayers,

Some critics have argued that FOI is being misused by the media and campaigners to dig up stories, but it strikes me that this is precisely what the Act should be used for: bringing stories that are of public interest out into the open. If it wasn’t important that the public know, then the media would not run the stories.

The public sector is still undergoing a pay freeze with raises capped at just one per cent, but they still earn more than their private sector counterparts and with CPI inflation at zero per cent this is still wage growth in real terms. And the pensions received in the private sector are often much less generous than those in the public sector – if one is offered at all.

The decorations are down, only the orange creams are left in the chocolate box, the holidays are over, the money is spent and more divorces are initiated than at any time of the year. So any campaign that encourages me to give up something that brings me even a little post-Christmas comfort will always fall as flat as my mood. So here is a list of things I am not giving up in January: meat, wine, carbs, and razors, especially razors. Before I continue, this column is not going to turn into a Piers Morgan style rant about a Gregg’s vegan sausage roll (best advertising they could have hoped for). If you want to be a vegan, be a vegan. If you want to cut down on your drinking after an over-indulgent festive period do so. If you’ve put on a few pounds eat less until you can button up those trousers again. And if you’ve slobbed in your armchair in front of the telly, get up and go for a walk. But don’t insist we are all going to hell in a handcart if we don’t join you. A plethora of adverts for diets, gym memberships, healthy options, just makes me want to sink deeper under the duvet and reach for that last mince pie. This is probably because I have always been the type of person who feels the urge to do exactly the opposite of what is expected of me, or worse still is good for me. And quite frankly I have never seen the point in choosing a month as depressing as January to give up something you have no intention of giving up forever just because the marketing boys tell you it’s good for you and good for the profits of the products they are pushing. Especially if you plan to give up giving it up come February 1. Lifestyle changes are one thing. Fads and smug ‘look at me I am not eating/drinking this or that for a whole month’ is something completely different. Which brings me on to JanuHAIRY. Now this is a new one for 2019. The brain child, bless her, of a 21-year-old drama student who grew out her body hair for a one-woman show and now wants us to do the same in January. Oh well it’s easier than giving up wine, I suppose. I certainly haven’t the heart to tell her that during January, or indeed throughout the winter months, there are probably a million women doing just that because they can’t be bothered when winter clothing covers a multitude of hairy sins. It’s the ethos that by shaving your legs you are somehow body shaming other women that grates as much as a week’s worth of stubble on a pair of tights. And because she is young, bless her, I don’t really want to point out that in the pictures of her with hairy armpits proudly on display she is wearing a lovely soft pale pink lipstick and has beautifully shaped eyebrows – and why not? The irony is the so-called “natural woman” campaign has been embraced would you believe it by a company that makes razors for women. Billie proudly boasts in its campaign that its adverts are a ‘celebration of body hair’, which is somewhat strange considering they sell women’s razors ‘to give your lady bod some love.’ See what I mean about marketing? Look, body shaming is a serious issue. But let’s not body shame the vast majority of us who find the idea of having hairy armpits, well quite frankly, gross. Nor is it a case that we are conforming to a male vision of beauty. As far as I know men’s razors still outsell women’s, though I quite agree just because they have a pink handle they shouldn’t be twice the price. Shaving your legs is no different to having your hair cut or slapping on some lipstick. If it makes you feel good do it. If not, don’t. So this January and every month, let’s me and you make a pact. Do something for you, not because everyone else tells you you should, but because you want to. It really is that simple. Anyway must go. I am washing my hair and painting my nails. Oh, and shaving my legs.

We found pension contributions close to a quarter of an annual salary, but there are great discrepancies in this across the public sector with some employees only getting half of that.

Overall the research undertaken by the TaxPayers’ Alliance shows that there needs to be a bit of a rethink when it comes to employee remuneration. And 
it is certainly pleasing that George Osborne has indicated he will write to 
all councils to set out new rules on pay and perks.

For him, these revelations should be seen in the light of the upcoming Spending Review and Autumn Statement. There he will have to demonstrate where he is going to make cuts that could affect the lives of millions as we continue the necessary course of deficit reduction. And it is there that the Chancellor must make it clear that wasteful spending is a moral outrage when cuts are having to be made elsewhere.

This includes the massive pay packages found in local councils which are raising their council tax or cutting services. Taxpayers need protecting and we at the TPA do our utmost to do so but the man who can really make a difference sits next to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.

To persuade him to make the savings we need the public must demand 
them and, armed with the Town Hall Rich List, they can show him where 
there is fat to trim.

Jonathan Isaby is chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.