No provision for Council’s ‘Corporate Mum’ to have a child of her own
‘You couldn’t make it up’ is a wildly overused cliché, especially when it comes to local government, writes Chris Game.
Last week alone, for instance, we had Conservative-controlled Medway Council giving the PM’s grammar schools campaign a terrific boost by wrongly failing hundreds of children taking its 11-plus test.
And North East Lincolnshire Council roadsigning the once picturesque village of Barnoldby-le-Beck into a miniature Piccadilly Circus.
But Birmingham, keen to squeeze some final national publicity out of its four glorious days in the political sun, and emphasise what a young, progressive, forward-looking city – and council – it is, was not to be outdone.
So it offered the media the news that, were one of its cabinet members – the one actually responsible for children’s services, no less – hypothetically to decide to have a child of her own, she “would probably have to step down – because the Council has no applicable maternity policy”.
No, this isn’t Bridget Jones’s Baby and it isn’t fictional – at least not the situation, I can’t comment on the baby.
This is Selly Oak Councillor Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children, families and schools responsible for a £1.2 million budget and several thousand staff. As it happens, she does keep a diary, though one that understandably takes a rather laggardly second place nowadays to her Tweeting activity.
In fact, one of her more recent diary entries actually started off by recording how, “like many parents, I spent my Saturday morning this week relaxing with my kids” – before hastily explaining that “they’re not my kids in the traditional sense – they’re in the Council’s care, and I’m their corporate parent. I’ve got just over 1900 of them.”
She went on to describe what corporate parenting legally and practically involves, the fun the children, their carers, siblings, council staff and she herself had had, the certificates handed out by the Lord Mayor, and how she ended the day feeling “like a very proud corporate mum”.
Another comparatively recent entry was prompted by fellow councillor, Penny Holbrook, having met a girl who, never having seen or heard of a woman scientist, thought such beings for some reason simply weren’t allowed.
As an albeit lapsed physicist herself, Brigid Jones wrote a diary entry partly to reassure Penny’s young friend that women scientists did indeed exist, if you searched hard enough for them, and partly to muse about her own “habit of ending up in places women don’t traditionally go” – like, returning to the case in point, around a council cabinet table.
For, enquiring about her maternity rights, Cllr Jones was informed that, having, like all councillors, had her Local Government Pension Scheme entitlement removed by the last government, Birmingham City Council also made no provision for maternity arrangements attached to her £25,000 p.a. cabinet job, and that “I’d most likely have to step down from my position if I were to have a child.”
I thought of starting this next sentence with “To be fair to the Council …” and explain that the Council’s CEO, Mark Rogers, is apparently “now working on a policy” and that, soon after you read this, the embarrassing situation may be in sight of some kind of sticking plaster solution.
But I’m really not persuaded, from my understanding of the council’s position, that any fairness is warranted. For a start, it’s not directly the CEO’s responsibility.
For years now all English councils have been required to have Independent Remuneration Panels, which make recommendations regarding all the allowances to which councillors may be entitled – including basic, special responsibilities, travelling and subsistence, Dependent Carers’ Allowance – which are then approved by the full council.
Panels aren’t advised by, and wouldn’t normally have anything much to do with, the council’s CEO. And councillors themselves are in a tricky position, knowing full well that even gently questioning a panel’s judgement and recommendations will bring vicious accusations of pigs and troughs plastered all over the local media.
So the real responsibility rests with the panels. Some clearly sense that, particularly in the present economic and political climate, their council as a whole will expect, maybe even want, them to be parsimonious.
Others, though, have taken the view that councillors’ remuneration, with its required and substantial Public Service Discount, is not excessive, and indeed can serve as a real recruiting disincentive. All, or most, of us say we want younger, more socially, occupationally and ethnically diverse councillors, but remuneration panel members are among the few able to do something directly about it.
Some, therefore, will make explicit provision for leave and allowances for maternity, paternity, adoption and ill-health, and for all members, including those – like cabinet members – entitled to a Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA), to continue to receive their allowances in full in the same way as the council’s employees. A replacement to cover the period of absence can be appointed, and the replacement entitled to claim an SRA.
Ill-health and sickness excepted, I can find no mention in Birmingham Council’s current Members’ Allowances Scheme of any of these life events that presumably punctuate the lives of at least relatively younger councillors in the same way as they do the rest of us.
If the proffered excuse is that “it’s a long time since we’ve had a pregnant cabinet member”, then the diversity case makes itself. With children’s social care alone due to take at least one-fifth of all council spending by 2020, it would be useful to have a few councillors with some first-hand experience of where it’ll go.
It may be there’s some history here of which I’m unaware – apart, that is, from the Council’s dire and costly past record on gender equality issues – but, if so, it seems that the CEO is too. In which case, and even though there are obviously additional non-financial questions involved, this surely ought to be one of the more straightforward items in his current in-tray.
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