In the wake of the astounding revelation that the Department of Communities and Local Government had paid their interim financial chief £580k for 16 months work, the Local Government Chroniclereports that Eric Pickles has been trying to justify his fiscal exuberance.
Pickles told a select committee that the staggering sum was due to the difficulty in finding a new financial chief but was called out by members on the contradiction between his critical attitude towards excessive salaries in local authorities and the apparent free-for-all in his department.
Indeed, here are some of his greatest hits:
“The Prime Minister’s taken a pay cut, I’ve taken a pay cut, so I say to my many chums who are council chief executives – it’s your turn now.” – at the Conservative Party Conference, October 2010
“Councils need to make sure they don’t sully their reputation by taking decision behind closed doors to reward chief executives when they should be focusing resources on protecting frontline services … I think the democratically elected members of any council should make sure they have their say on pay and that £100,000 is the place to start that.” – in a department press release in February.
“Before we see libraries cut and all these kinds of things, I want to see councils merge their back office functions. I would like to see them sharing chief executives…” – to the Birmingham Post last December.
“The figures that are being bandied around are just scaremongering. Councils could cut chief executive pay, share services and get rid of non-jobs.” – in the Daily Mail last December.
Pickles even used Twitter to respond to a Scrapbook story about a £65k pay hike for a Conservative council chief executive, describing it as “wrong and excessive”.
Pickles time in government could be dramatised as as “How to Lose Chums and Alienate People”.
Eric Pickles, for whom lambasting councils for supposedly wasteful spending is a stock in trade, has paid his department’s interim finance chief nearly £600,000 for only 16 months work.
The department’s permanent secretary revealed the shocking figure — more than £36,000 per month — to a committee of MPs described as “speechless” by LGC’sAlistair Hayman. Sir Bob Kerslake attempted to defend the salary of Stephen Park, hired from PFI kings Capita:
“Clearly, however large that figure is – and I don’t want to suggest it isn’t a large figure – the consequence of not running our finances in a sound way would have been far greater”
This will be difficult to swallow for councils across the country, who have frequently been on the end of Pickles’ criticisms of their spending. As recently as May of this year, he was denouncing a “culture of wild overspends” in local authorities.
Today is the day that the hacking and privacy invasion scandal moved inside the Conservative Party. After news broke yesterday that a justice minister faces an official investigation over “blagging”, it has now been revealed that Tory HQ paid private investigators to spy on the private lives of its own supporters.
The 2010 “I’ve never voted Tory before” campaign, widely spoofed on the web, featured members of the public who were new to supporting the party at the general election. But several candidates to be profiled in the adverts were rejected after the the official Conservative election campaign, run from CCHQ in Millbank Tower, paid for information on their sex lives and personal political activity.
The revelations come after months of assurances from David Cameron that the behaviour of staffers with prior links to privacy invasion, such as Andy Coulson, was beyond reproach while they worked for him:
“During his time working for me, Andy has carried out his role with complete professionalism.”
One was man rejected because of an extra-marital affair while another was rebuffed for connections with an insurgent political movement. While the Tories have claimed that the campaign of snooping was carried out “with the full knowledge and consent of the person involved”, one target told the Mirror that she was “astonished” that the party “knew everything” about her.
The developments will prompt yet more awkward questions for David Cameron and Eric Pickles, who was running the Millbank campaign HQ at the time.
Who within CCHQ authorised and funded this outrageous invasion of privacy?
Back in 2004, Eric Pickles slammed council chief executives for spending taxpayers’ money on expensive trips:
“At a time when pensioners are scrimping and saving to pay their council tax it is outrageous that councillors are going on foreign freebies. They should show some solidarity with taxpayers and pay towards these trips.”
But there seems to be one rule for local government and another for Pickles’ own department. Allister Hayman of the Local Government Chronicle reports that the secretary of state and two officials spent £12,552 on a four-day trip to India in April of this year.
A parliamentary answer by Tory MP Bob Neill reveals “expenditure of £4,060.63 per person for international and internal flights, and £123.42 per person for accommodation”. Pickles tried to deflect criticism by using his catchphrase, talking of the “degree of transparency” that he observed on the trip, but even the right-wing Taxpayers’ Alliance is critical:
“With technology these days there are alternatives to foreign travel and ministers should question whether a trip is necessary.”
It seems Pickles will travel any distance for a good Tandoori.
In a move somewhat out of kilter with efforts to portray his department as the vanguard of openness in government, ”transparency champion” Eric Pickles has attempted to block councils releasing data on spending.
In June 2010, Pickles called for councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online, saying:
“Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government. The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers.”
So one might question why a local government spending surveys carried out by the BBC and Local Government Chronicle (LGC) were blocked by the government. Councils were told to refuse requests for data on the spurious basis that it was intended for future publication by the Office for National Statistics.
DCLG has been in lock-down for months over allegations that one of Eric Pickles’ special advisers smeared a public official. In contrast with his rhetoric about the “sunlight of openness”, the cabinet minister has done everything within his power to resist enquiries about the identity of the source behind a vicious negative briefing against the former head of the Audit Commission.
And the pressure is clearly starting to take its toll. Following a report that Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell had been forced to conduct an investigation into the smears, leading DCLG attack dog Grant Shapps was dispatched to throw mud at the Local Government Chonicle’s Allister Hayman.
Even more instructive are the tell-tale signs that a legal operation may now be in place. An article on PR Week has now been edited to remove all references to Pickles’ political aides Sheridan Westlake and Giles Kenningham.
Eric Pickles’ team are closing ranks to protect his most senior aides. Neither of his special advisers have been disciplined despite an unprecedented letter from the cabinet secretary reprimanding David Cameron for their behaviour, Local Government Chroniclerevealed (£) this week.
In September 2010, Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson was smeared as “incompetent” and “milking the taxpayer” by a source within the department, widely thought to be one of Pickles’ SpAds Sheridan Westlake or Giles Kenningham.
But in a response to a freedom of information request from Allister Hayman the department said:
“no disciplinary matters concerning the performance of special advisers” have been reported in the department since May 2010 and “no possible contract or code of conduct breaches by special advisers has been reported”.
This does not preclude the possibility that the offending SpAd received an off-the-record dressing down at a senior level. We can have no doubt, however, that Pickles is determined to shield Kenningham and Westlake, the latter of whom had a particularly formidable reputation within CCHQ, running the Tories’ Liberal Democrat attack unit.
Well-placed sources indicate the suspected SpAds are “still walking round DCLG like they own the place”.