The Cult of the Clerk
- – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, examining the root cause of how and why so much of the lowest tier of local government is in such an intractable mess.
Parish and Town Councillors are generally very eager to proclaim that they are volunteers – amateurs – offering their services to their communities free of charge, though not without the considerable reward of (hopefully) being acknowledged as pillars of society (or so they see themselves).
The reality is that, precisely because of their amateurism, they are generally unschooled in local government legislation. They have little or no grasp of the limitations to the ‘powers’ of Parish and Town Councils – or the concomitant duties and responsibilities. Though rudimentary training is available (through bodies such as the Yorkshire Local Councils Associations and the National Association of Local Councils), few local Councillors ever avail themselves of the opportunity. Of those who do, few gain any real insight from what is usually limited to a three-hour group session.
Inevitably, it falls to the Parish/Town Clerk (also the Proper Officer and the Responsible Financial Officer) to keep the Councillors on the straight and narrow.
For those small Councils that are blessed with an often younger, competent and qualified Clerk/RFO with a strong sense of probity, this system seems to work – after a fashion.
Unfortunately, such is human nature that when a group of (generally) elderly Councillors – many of whom are acutely aware of having no local government knowledge and no electoral mandate – is confronted by a younger, personable, more experienced and articulate Clerk/RFO, it is all too easy to abdicate all responsibilty and hand all control into the hands of the Clerk/RFO.
This is what has come to be known as ‘The Cult of the Clerk’. The Council’s actions become little more than an extension NOT of the will of the people, nor even the will of the majority of Councillors themselves, but of the will of the unelected Clerk – the puppet master.
Fortunately – and, I would like to think, because of the in-depth scrutiny of smaller Councils by internet news magazines like the North Yorks Enquirer – the wider public is now becoming far more alert to the abuse of power exercised by a certain class of rogue Clerks who are unscrupulously turning the Council’s power to tax residents (via the Parish Precept) to their own personal advantage. Unlike larger Councils, Towns and Parishes have no ‘cap’ on their Precepts, which can be increased without limit to encompass more-than-generous salaries, pensions and other ‘perks’ for their Clerks/RFOs.
These rogue Clerks often find employment at several small Council’s within a given geographical area. I recall a Clerk in the Borough of Scarborough who managed five or six Parish Councils. On top of five or six salaries, this particular Clerk also engineered appointment as the respective Councils’ web-master (at a fee of between £2.5K and £3.5K per annum, per Council) using a simple WordPress site-template in which only the name of the Parish, a couple of photos and the relevant documentation varied – a total workload amounting to a couple of hours per month. This ‘racket’ went unchallenged (or unnoticed) by a total of over thirty ‘volunteer’ Parish Councillors, none of whom (one can all too easily imagine) had the first idea how to set up or maintain a web-site – or to exert any control over their wayward Clerks.
In recent months, the Enquirer has received cries for help against rogue Clerks from several Parish Councils in North Yorkshire, Norfolk, Leicestershire, Cornwall, Kent, East Lindsey (Lincs.), Allandale (Cumbria), Glossopdale (Derbyshire) and Stockton-on-Tees. Time and health permitting, it is my firm intention to expose petty and grand corruption (and incompetence) at each of these parasitic institutions.
But it is not only at the smaller (5-9 member) Parish Councils that ‘The Cult of the Clerk’ prevails; it is at the larger Town Councils (with 10-19 members) that ‘The Cult of the Clerk’ is at its most costly – and dangerous.
The combination of a large number of Councillors (who do not know kippers from coppers) and a plausible, personable and revered Clerk (who often is not much better) is a golden recipe for disaster – inevitably at the cost of the taxpayer.
At present, the basic annual salary of a Member of Parliament (serving an average of 92,000 residents) is £86,584. It is scarcely credible (but true) that a mere Town Clerk can command a similar sum to serve around a seventh of that number of residents – whilst off-loading a goodly proportion of the workload to a Deputy Clerk (on around half of that ludicrous salary) and sometimes even an Assistant or trainee dogsbody. Yet pliable Councillors have been led by the nose into authorising such recklessness.
In the Country of the Blind . . .
Consider the following example. In June 2023, Whitby Town Councillor Michael HARRISON – a relative ‘newbie’ – sought my advice about tabling a laudable and well-intentioned Motion to constrain housing development in Whitby to social housing for Whitby residents only, for the next ten years.
I advised Councillor Michael HARRISON to the effect that I could seen no way to achieve that end through Whitby Town Council. I wrote:
“I applaud your sentiments and concerns in regard to Social Housing. However, I cannot for the life of me see an avenue to progress this at Town/Parish level.”
Ignoring my advice (written and verbal) that Whitby Town Council had no powers to carry out his populist intentions, Councillor HARRISON sought and found a Seconder (Councillor Asa JONES), delivered his Motion to the Town Clerk, Mr Michael KING, and, in due course, reported to me on his progress by forwarding the following email which he had received from the Town Clerk, who had essentially re-written Councillor Michael HARRISON’s Motion, thus:
As can be seen, the Clerk – to his credit – stripped away the ‘chaff’ from the HARRISON/JONES rhetoric. What he did not do was point out that the ‘wheat’ itself was sterile. Nor did he mention that the Council’s professed intention to create a Neighbourhood Plan remains nothing but a pipedream.
. . . the One-eyed Man is King
Inevitably, it was in the Town Clerk’s innocuous (but pointless) form of words that the Motion finally came before Council, on 6th September 2023:
But why did our exhorbitantly expensive Town Clerk, who must already have been fully aware that Councils have no choice but to “work within the boundaries of the national legislation”, feign to not know this when he advised Councillors HARRISON and JONES? He might have saved from a very public embarrassment.
There are 731 Parishes in North Yorkshire. Over 580 of them have Parish or Town Councils. Collectively, these smaller Councils tax residents to the tune of £9.3 million each year, a huge proportion of which pays the salaries, pensions, NI contributions and sometimes health care plans of their Clerks/RFOs.
This money is spent by Councillors who have very little understanding of their responsibilities – on the often unsound advice of vastly overpaid Clerks who, in many cases, are scarcely any better.
A massive reform of ultra-local government is long overdue. A good first step would be to eradicate ‘The Cult of the Clerk’.
To achieve that, we would need candidates for election who have demonstrated a good grasp of the task in hand – a ‘governance test’ before standing for election, comparable to a driving test before being let loose on the roads.
In my view, there should be a mandatory requirement for ALL candidates for election to attend a course of training and pass an examination demonstrating a basic proficiency in local government regulatory requirements. The scope of this training should include emphasis on the statutory duties of a Councillor; how a lawful Council decision (Resolution) is to be made; the importance of being aware of (and adhering to) Standing Orders and Financial Regulations; the basics of sound Governance and Accountabilty, what effective Financial and Internal Control really means, and how these engage with the Council’s Annual Audit.
It should also include a section about the Council’s Budget and Annual Accounts and how these are to be scrutinised and validated prior to approval by Councillors, using their awareness of the Practitioners’ Guide published by JPAG (Joint Panel on Accountability and Governance).
In the event of an elected member transgressing the Code of Conduct or any other statutory requirement, a ‘refresher’ course followed by re-testing should also be mandatory.
The obvious analogy is that one may not take a car, motorcycle or HGV out on the highway without demonstrating an adequate degree of proficiency. Why should a motley gaggle of dunderheaded geriatric Councillors be free to make far-reaching decisions (having profound effects on their communities) and spend large amounts of public money, without proportionate checks and balances?
And the position of Clerk and Responsible Financial Officer should also require a qualification in Local Government Administration – comparable, perhaps, to a masters degree in poltics, philosophy and economics.
Councillors should have at the forefront of their minds the fact that the Clerk/RFO works for them – and not the other way around.
The ‘amateurs’ have had their day – and proven themselves worse than useless. Better to rely on qualified ‘professionals’ – on at least ‘living-wage’ Allowances/Salaries – who, if found to have fallen short of acceptable standards, may be subject to penalties – or even ‘recall’, as are our MPs.
This would go some way towards preventing arrogant, incompetent amateurs clinging to ‘power’ for years, in defiance of the will of the people, whilst leading their Councils into zero accomplishment and financial ruin.
Whilst I can fully respect the received wisdom that the present Whitby Town Council Chair/Mayor, Councillor Bob DALRYMPLE, is a first-class bar steward, he seems to me to be far too reliant on his Clerk. He is not, in my view, the man to lead the Council for the next four years.
Better, by far, that Whitby Town Council should be abolished altogether.