Tit-for-tat row on councillor cash

A political row has erupted after MPs suggested that increasing town hall allowances could help attract more "capable" local councillors.

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps accused Labour of a "sleazy" bid to boost its own party coffers by encouraging higher payments.

But the Opposition said he had scored a "massive own goal" because Tory MPs had approved the contents of the cross-party report.

The tit-for-tat was sparked by the conclusions of an investigation into the role of councillors by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. It found that present levels of allowances "at best, do not encourage and, at worst, deter capable people from standing for election".

The increasingly demanding role warranted "an appropriate level of compensation, especially if they have to take time off work", it said. However "the problem is exacerbated because councils are reluctant to vote for an increase for fear of the media and public reaction".

Instead, like under the new system for MPs' pay and perks, responsibility for setting allowances should be handed over to an independent local panel, it recommended. Compensation for loss of earnings, incentives for employers to support council duties and more officer support to handle casework were also recommended.

Labour MP Clive Betts, who chairs the committee which has a majority of members from coalition parties, said "legitimate" rises were being shied away from and dismissed Mr Shapps' attack as "shallow political point-scoring". Minutes show the text of the report was approved by both Conservative members present, Heather Wheeler and Mark Pawsey.

Mrs Wheeler, herself a councillor of more than 20 years' standing, said she stood by the report, including the concerns that low allowances may in some cases put off candidates.

But Mr Shapps accused Mr Betts of a "cynical and sleazy move" because Labour councillors are obliged to pass on a proportion of their allowances to the local and national party coffers. He said: "Local taxpayers will be shocked to learn that the Labour Party will be quids-in from Labour demands for more taxpayers' money on councillor allowances."

Mr Betts insisted the committee was not calling for a "blanket increase" but an independent assessment in each area as to whether allowances were set at the correct level.

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