Local councillors are part of the voluntary sector, a senior civil servant suggested yesterday.
Speaking at the local infrastructure body Navca’s annual conference in London yesterday (22 November), David Prout, director-general for localism at the Communities and Local Government department, said there should be greater recognition of the volunteering efforts undertaken by many of the country’s 20,000 councillors.
Prout said they deserved to be regarded as part of the voluntary sector.
Sajid Hashmi, chief executive of Voluntary Action Stoke-on-Trent, said in a question and answer session afterwards that he was alarmed by the comments and could not see how councillors could be part of the voluntary sector.
Prout, whose responsibilities at CLG include local government, decentralisation and the big society, said he stood by his comments.
Councillors, he said, received modest allowances. "This distinguishes them from straightforward volunteers. It doesn’t distinguish them from many people in the voluntary sector who are paid. My wife works for the Prison Reform Trust and she receives a salary.
"What I have seen from many councillors is selfless devotion to their local communities and a vast amount of effort done on a voluntary basis. We should do more to recognise and celebrate that service."
His comments were greeted by some gasps and even laughter among delegates. Another keynote speaker, Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association and Conservative leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, came to Prout’s defence.
"It worries me that in an audience like this, there is suspicion about the motives of councillors," he said. Most councillors, said Cockell, came from community activism backgrounds.
Sara Ruiz, director of Newham Voluntary Sector Consortium, said it was wrong to describe councillors’ community service as volunteering. She said councillors in the London borough of Newham received annual allowances of about £25,000 on average and more than £50,000 in some cases. "That isn’t volunteering," she said.
Cockell said the national average for councillors’ allowances was about £10,500. "They are certainly not living on it," he said. "A little more recognition of the value of elected representatives would be healthy."