Back in 2010-11, then Conservative-controlled Croydon Council changed its councillors' allowances scheme, adopting the recommendations of an independent panel established by London Councils.
The result was that the total cost of councillors allowances reduced with many councillors having their allowances cut, but those who received Special Responsibility Allowances to compensate them for the fact that they spent much of their time on Council business - the Leader of the Council, other Cabinet members, the Mayor etc - were eligible for a rise. All of them decided it would be wrong to take a rise at a time when the Council’s staff were seeing their pay frozen. That was the right decision and I publicly praised them for it at the time.
It appears from information that the Council has released today, reported in The Croydon Advertiser, that at some point during 2013/14 – before the local elections on 22nd May – the then Leader of the Council Cllr Mike Fisher privately told Council officers that he would like to be paid more of the allowance he was eligible for, increasing his income by £10,000.
I am angry about – and feel very let down by – this news.
First, I believe it is wrong for the Leader of the Council to get a 17% pay rise at a time when the people who work for the Council, many of them on quite low salaries, were getting just 1%.
Second, I believe it was doubly wrong to keep this decision private until after the local elections were out of the way. Openness is one of the seven core principles of public life. If Mike felt he deserved a higher salary, he should have told people what he was doing. He didn’t tell anyone, not even his fellow Conservative councillors I understand let alone the people of Croydon whose Council Tax payments fund his allowances.
The hardest thing in politics is when someone who isn’t just a party colleague but a friend does something wrong. I have known Mike for nearly 20 years. He has been a great support to me as a Parliamentary candidate and then an MP. Some in my party will be angry with me for issuing this statement.
But residents rightly expect politicians to put what is right before party loyalty. If we don’t make it clear that what Mike has done is wrong, the actions of one individual will tarnish the reputation of the whole party.
I met with Cllr Fisher on Friday evening to discuss these issues with him. He subsequently issued a statement acknowledging that he should have told people what he was doing and announcing that he is resigning as Leader of the Conservative Group on Croydon Council. He has done the right thing in resigning and I hope this will go some way to restoring his reputation.
You can read his full statement here.
Steven Downes from the Inside Croydon website has claimed there are lots of unanswered questions about this affair. Here are answers to all but two of the questions he has posed:
Questions 1 & 2. Which councillors knew and when?
The first question is (perhaps deliberately in an attempt to conflate two things) rather vague. Knew what exactly?
Knew that before the local elections Cllr Fisher had asked Council officers to increase the allowance paid to him? If that's what Steven is asking, all the senior members of the Conservative Group have made it clear that they were not aware of this.
Or knew that after the local elections Cllr Fisher was thinking about retrospectively claiming a higher allowance? If that's what Steven is asking, the answer is members of the Shadow Cabinet, other members of the Conservative Group who had claimed a lower allowance than they were eligible for, the Leader of the Labour Group Tony Newman and possibly other members of the Labour Group depending on who Tony told.
3 & 4. Which council officials knew and when?
I don’t know the answer to this - my focus has been on ensuring that all information about the involvement of Conservative councillors is in the public domain - but clearly some officers must have known in order for payments to be made. However, we don't need an expensive inquiry to find out the answer - Cllr Newman just needs to ask the Council's Chief Executive.
5. Do you support calls for an inquiry?
I believe all the relevant information is either in the public domain or, as regards which officers knew, could easily be put in the public domain.
We know how much everyone was paid, so we know it was only Cllr Fisher who received more than we would have expected.
We know how it happened - a number of members were claiming less than they were eligible to claim and it was open to any of them at any time to claim more (though clearly they should have been open about doing so).
We know that four other councillors or former councillors thought about making retrospective claims after the elections, but in the end decided not to.
If Steven has any evidence that there is more to this, there would be a strong case for an inquiry. There may also be a case for a more wide-ranging inquiry, looking at whether we should pay senior councillors so much and whether they should have to declare other income as MPs do so we can see how many hours they do for the allowances they receive. But the inquiry the Council has set up is likely to take six weeks to tell us what I have set out above.
6. Should Cllr Fisher repay the cash?
Cllr Fisher was eligible to receive this money. He hasn't broken any laws. His mistake - and it was a serious one that has cost him his position as Group Leader - was not being open about claiming it.
7. Should he resign as a councillor?
Cllr Fisher has paid the price for his mistake in losing the Group leadership. People deserve a second chance in life.
8. How was your meeting on Friday part of your party’s “due procees”?