The concept of the volunteer is one that David Cameron has rightly championed as part of his promotion of the Big Society. Giving up one’s time, for free, for the benefit of the community, a charity, a school or some other worthy organisation is to be encouraged and applauded. We all moan at times about local government services and the council tax we have to pay. But as a general rule the councillors, who volunteer to take on demanding duties for no more than modest financial reimbursement deserve our praise and our thanks.
But it is that word, volunteer, that is crucial here. The councillors we want are those who are happy to help with the running local services because they want to, not because they can see some financial or other advantage in it for them. That is why it is important that the role of councillor does not become a salaried position; that the level of reimbursements and expenses never do more than compensate councillors for time missed at work and other costs incurred. It is reasonable to offer an allowance, if only to ensure council positions are not occupied entirely by those who have private means and do not have to work. It is unreasonable for those allowances and other perks to become effectively salaries, encouraging some individuals to treat a seat on the local authority as a route to some easy money.
Which brings us to the issue of pensions. The news today that up to 50 local councillors in Cornwall and Plymouth are members of the Local Government Pension Scheme, subsidised by the taxpayer and eligible for a generous pay-out at retirement age, crosses a line. Those councillors have moved one big step away from being a true volunteer and a step closer to being a paid employee. That completely changes the nature of their relationship, not just with the local authority but with the voters who elected them.
The decision about whether councillors can join local authority employees as members of the pension scheme rests with the council itself. For those already in, there is little that can be done. But we would support the Taxpayers’ Alliance in regretting the fact that the role of councillor is becoming much more professional – in the monetary sense – than is desirable. We urge our councils to close off their pension schemes to any further involvement by councillors. We want well-motivated volunteers, not professional politicians, in the council chamber.