Opinion: Councillors Commission report – why it shouldn’t be ignored

The launch of the report of the Councillors Commission earlier this month was largely knocked out of the media by larger news stories, but the report deserves more than to be relegated to a gather dust on a Whitehall shelf.

Before I saw the report it was described to me as “one third brilliant, one third bizarre and one third barmy” – and I wasn’t disappointed. There are some strange ideas in the report – such as the suggestion that Parties should nominate “reserve councillors” to take the place of those elected should a Councillor resign or die in office (what would we do without local by-elections?). Similarly bizarre was the idea that voting in local elections should be encouraged by entering voters into a lottery to win a prize.

But there remains much to commend the report. Significantly the report recognises that the function of being a Councillor should be compatible with full-time employment (and being an Executive Members compatible with part-time employment). This is important – increasing the time commitment (and particularly daytime commitment) of councillors is an increasing trend but to exclude people who work from elected office would severely reduce the representative nature of councillors to the retired, self employed and the very few who have jobs with very generous flexibility. Similarly welcome is the recognition that councillors need support to carry out their role – not least officer support such as Political Assistants. Similarly welcome is a proposal to significantly ease the restrictions of “politically restricted” posts which currently exclude so many from public service.

Now to the brilliant. The Commission recommends that the voting age is reduced to 16 and that the age of standing for office is similarly reviewed. Votes at 16 has long been a sought by Liberal Democrats and its very welcome to see the proposal in a public document.

Significantly, the Report calls for councils to have the power to pilot Single Transferable Vote for local elections because, the Report notes, “STV can increase the diversity of councillors”. Whilst this would fall short of our policy of introducing STV across England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have it already) it is a small step in the right direction towards a fair voting system for local Government.

Parliament set up the Councillors Commission to look at how we improve our local democracy. Parliament now needs to put into action many of the sensible proposals its Commission recommends.

Cllr Tim Pickstone is Chief Executive of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC)

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5 Comments

  • I agree with most of what Tim says – yes to votes at 16 and STV (is that really the right system for multi-member wards?), no to shoehorned members in place of by-elections.

    Earlier this week I got a chance to meet Dame Jane Roberts who chaired the Commission, and was very impressed with the way she had gone for some quite radical ideas.

    I thanked her for including a recommendation that had originated with Lib Dem Kingston – to disallow a councillor’s allowance when calculating entitlement to benefits. A small point but a very significant one for widening representation. At present a councillor who is on benefits actually ends up financially worse off (as well as busier) when elected. This deterred a friend who would have made an excellent councillor, but who would have been caught in this trap because she is a single parent with a disabled child.

    I also discussed with her the issue of the political restrictions placed on us by the Code of Conduct, and the way civil servants are keen to de-politicise councillors.

    Let’s keep the good stuff alive – we shouldn’t be knocking this report which could bring about real liberal reforms.

  • I would strongly oppose disallowing cllrs allowances when calculating benefits. If this is a problem for cllrs allowances, it is a problem for all work. If that is the case, we need to fix the benefits system. To create a work around just for cllrs creates a very bad signal: the political class care only about their own, and the rest of the people can suffer because of a system that the political class created, but choose not to apply to themselves. It would be as bad as saying that MPs don’t have to pay the congestion charge.

    Not often I disagree with Mary, but on this I do, profoundly.

  • Gareth Epps 22nd Dec '07 - 9:18pm

    3/10 for STV and votes at 16. The rest of it is mostly New Labour rubbish

  • STV (is that really the right system for multi-member wards?)

    It wouldn’t be STV without multi member wards.

    Does the councillor commission report recomend votes at 16 for all elections or just local elections?

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