My last blog on Full Council (sadly since disappeared due to technical issues) proved popular, so I thought I would do another quick write-up of last Thursday’s meeting of Full Council, which proved almost as hot-tempered as the last one.
We knew from the get-go that it was going to be a long meeting because the agenda showed there were six motions being tabled by opposition councillors (mainly Labour). Back in the old days, we could sometimes get through four and be finished by 10pm but with as many as six, it was obvious we would be going right up to the guillotine at 11:30.
Then, when I arrived in the Council chamber, it became apparent that there were also twelve questions tabled for Members’ Question Time. Usually there may be a few questions from members of the public during Public Question Time but very rarely are their any from councillors. This seems to be a consequence of the influx of UKIP councillors, who are fond of tabling fractious questions – mostly directed at the Leader, Cllr Phil Turner.
The questions are mainly grandstanding and mischievous in nature but, fortuitously, Councillor Turner is quite adept at dealing with them and, with Questions also guillotined (at 9:30), we only heard five of them (the rest receive written answers). We then moved on to the motions.
After receiving a report on the Council’s treasury management activities we voted to approve the allocation of a further £4.98 million to the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) New Build, Acquisition & Disposal Programme. I was really pleased to vote in favour of using the Council’s Right to Buy income to fund the delivery of up to fifty new council homes. This will be the first major social housing development in the Borough since the 1980s. It is a small start but hopefully the start of something bigger.
The measure won broad support among the other groups, even if it was somewhat begrudging and there was a lot of carping on about the lack of social housing developments ‘since Thatcher’ – even though this is complete nonsense and, in actual fact, Margaret Thatcher built more council houses in a single year of her government than the Labour Party did during the whole of their thirteen years in power (but then I’ve never credited the Left with an eye for historical accuracy, as Mrs Thatcher also closed less coal mines than Harold Wilson). A sour note was also struck when Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge, the Deputy Leader of the UKIP Group, made a rather inflammatory speech about immigration. I share many of the same criticisms of the last Government’s immigration policies and hate the politically correct browbeating that makes it so difficult to talk rationally about immigration, but there can be no doubt that Cllr Allport-Hodge delivered a rather nasty speech. The tone and content were decidedly ugly, featuring some really aggressive references to “foreigners” (comin’ over ‘ere, etc, etc). At least once councillor left the room in disgust. I didn’t feel ‘disgusted’, though it did leave one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth. There are ways of discussing the pressures on our housing and other infrastructure caused by unchecked immigration without sounding like you are channelling Alf Garnett in full rant.
We then moved onto the motions. The first motion was tabled by the Labour Leader, Cllr Byron Taylor, and sought to induce Basildon Council to introduce the so-called ‘Living Wage’ (set at £7.65 per hour, rather than the current National Minimum Wage of £6.50). This was straightforward mischief by the Labour Group, aimed squarely at making the Tories vote against it so that they could then condemn the Tories for doing so, even though they already know that one of the reasons the Conservative Group were voting against it is because the Administration already has the Chief Executive looking into it. Doubtless another benefit of this motion is that it will allow Labour, if and when the Living Wage is introduced, to take the credit for it and claim it came about solely as a consequence of their agitation.
Personally, I am not sure where I stand on the Living Wage. There are a number of prominent Tories in favour of it, including Guy Opperman MP, Robert Halfon MP and, most notably, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But, personally, I tend to hold to the view that State intervention in private wage arrangements does more harm than good. The Tories opposed the introduction of the NMW because we feared it would lead to the loss of jobs. If employers have to pay wages not justified by productivity, profits will fall, leading to a precipitant fall in tax receipts and rise in unemployment, with businesses unable to afford to hire new workers. There is, nowadays, an orthodoxy that this thinking was wrong and has been proved wrong. NMW was introduced in 1998 and the sky didn’t fall in. However, as NMW is now at its highest ever level relative to average earnings for adults (and remains high for young people), I think it could still, in some cases, be stifling job creation. In any case, if the Labour Party really thinks bringing in the Living Wage is so important, then why is Ed Miliband only proposing a scheme lasting a year (the “twelve-month tax rebate”)?
Now, all that being said, I remain open-minded about the Living Wage. There may indeed be some merit in a targeted use of the tax system to encourage employers to boost wages. But let us not forget that a tax cut in one place means a rise elsewhere. I have to bear in mind that the introduction of the Living Wage for Basildon Council would have to be paid for by my electorate through their Council Tax – and we as a Group, and I as a councillor, are committed as an Administration first and foremost to keeping the Council Tax as low as possible. I believe there is a limit to the degree to which taxpayers should have to subsidise public sector wages and that is why I was not out in London protesting this weekend (I work for a London Borough as my day job). I am always mindful that I am paid by local taxpayers and already feel that I am fairly remunerated and every time I ask for a pay rise, I am asking hard-pressed families to dig deeper into their own pockets. Encouraging employers to pay the Living Wage may be a good thing but I believe cutting taxes for the low paid is even better. I would much rather ensure the minimum wage is a living wage by lowering taxes for low earners and simplifying the tax system, which is why I am proud that the current Government have taken three million of the lowest paid out of taxation altogether.
The second motion of the evening was one put forward by a Labour backbencher, Cllr Andrew Gordon (Lab, Nethermayne), which sought to sign the Council up to the Local Authorities’ Mental Health Challenge and appoint a ‘mental health champion’. This is a very important issue and Councillor Gordon is actually a very admirable guy, who works extremely hard on this issue and I think his doughty campaigning on the subject commands a great deal of respect across the chamber. He gave a very passionate speech, in which he spoke movingly of his own struggles with his mental health, and it really resonated with me (I have someone very close to me in my personal life who has battled clinical depression, so I know how difficult it is to talk about these things).
There were some concerns, however, about the scheme and a lack of detail in the motion with regard to any potential cost to the Council (a typical failing of Labour motions before Council, as with the previous motion on the Living Wage, is a failure to clearly identify the cost of proposals). It was also noted that the scheme in question generally seems to be geared more towards upper-tier authorities (county councils and unitary authorities), who deal directly with health and education, which Basildon Council does not. But we did not want to simply throw it out, as the scheme potentially has a great deal of merit to it. So rather than vote against it, the Conservative Group agreed to table a ‘procedural motion’ to refer it to Cabinet for further scrutiny.
Sadly, Councillor Gordon and his Labour colleagues reacted very violently to this procedural motion, in fact he was visibly very upset, and I think that is a great shame and certainly was not our intention. I think he thought that referring the matter to Cabinet was an attempt by us to “kick it into the long grass”. This certainly was not the case and, if it had been, then I certainly would not have supported it. Several of my colleagues, who subsequently spoke to the procedural motion, argued that the matter was far too important to be left simply to a motion at Full Council and merited more detailed scrutiny by the Cabinet. I for one was persuaded to vote in favour of referring it to Cabinet because I wanted to ensure that any future adoption of the Mental Health Challenge could commend the widest possible support across the chamber and it seemed evident to me that several colleagues were unsure, including members of the UKIP Group who expressed uncertainty.
Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (the Deputy UKIP Leader) was keen to stress to Councillor Gordon that, as she sits in Cabinet, she would ensure the matter did not end up in the long grass. Of course, this might have carried more weight had Councillor Allport-Hodge and her Leader, Cllr Kerry Smith, not both walked out of the chamber during Councillor Gordon’s speech (supposedly for a ‘fag break’, or so I’m told), which was rather unfortunate. Of course, one cannot help thinking Councillor Gordon might have somewhat less to worry about had his own Group not refused the seat at Cabinet that was offered them. In any case, nobody has anything to fear. The procedural motion was carried and I have every confidence that Cabinet will now look at this with a serious and open mind and report back to us. I appreciated Councillor Gordon’s frustration and disappointment but it is a hugely important issue and that makes it all the more important to get it right.
By this time, we had reached the guillotine, which meant business had to be brought to a close. There were four further motions yet to be debated and the procedure, in such events, is for the mover of each motion to decide whether they wish to put their motion to a vote without a debate or defer consideration until a future meeting of Full Council. All in all, it was a somewhat more good natured session than the last rowdy affair but still a good deal more heckling and hyperbole than I would like.