Time to stop rewarding failure and make public sector bosses accountable

In recent years the phrase ‘fat cats’ has often been applied to city traders and bosses of banks because of their eye-watering remuneration packages.

The truth is they have the effect of provoking both our envy and loathing – especially in the current economic climate.

We can’t quite get our heads around how a lucky few can be worth so much money at a time when so many people are out of work or struggling to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads.

Neither can we understand why spectacular failure in these circles always seems to be met with ring-fenced bonuses and golden handshakes.

But it clearly isn’t just within the private sector that mediocrity is rewarded with astonishing pay packets and pay-offs which make our blood boil.

It emerged yesterday that a city council director who oversaw unprecedented cuts to children’s services in the Potteries was paid £174,000 to walk away from her job.

When you add Sharon Menghini’s golden handshake to her salary of £151,515 and her expenses of £22,953 it equates to her being paid a quite unbelievable £348,218 for the year 2011/12.

It means that during those 12 months Dr Menghini earned £120,000 more than her former boss – city council chief executive John van de Laarschot.

I defy anyone to justify spending so much of taxpayers’ money on one senior officer in one year.

Let us not forget that it was on Dr Menghini’s watch that plans to close seven children’s centres in Stoke-on-Trent were botched – leading to major cutbacks at 16 centres across the city.

Some would regard this golden handshake as rewarding failure and I would agree.

Sadly, while the vast majority of public sector employees in our neck of the woods are suffering like the rest of us during the economic downturn, the fact is some of their bosses are bullet-proof.

You’d actually be amazed how many senior officers quit their jobs by mutual consent and give some flowery two-line statement about how much they have enjoyed their time with such-and-such an authority – irrespective of whatever disasters have happened on their watch.

They then move on to another big pay-day or set themselves up as ‘consultants’ – ready to receive daft money from another employer devoid of original ideas.

They are like football managers, resurfacing at other clubs having been fired for getting another team relegated six months earlier.

When these people do leave, of course, it is always on their own terms.

Take, for example, Mr van de Laarschot’s predecessor Chris Harman who received a £65,000 golden handshake from the authority for doing precisely nowt.

You may recall that Mr Harman was given the pay-off having decided to leave his job in October 2009.

A month later it emerged that a city council department had been left with a £109,000 overspend after paying out £115,000 in a redundancy package to another senior officer.

Head of performance and transformation John Ryan’s severance pay had been agreed by the then council manager – a certain Chris Harman – who used delegated powers to approve the package (councillors weren’t told).

Of course, it isn’t just within local government that public sector high-flyers get nonsensical pay-outs.

In 2007 Karen English, finance director at the former North Stoke Primary Care Trust quit her £85,000-a-year job after being suspended on full pay for 18 months.

Yes, you read that right: Full pay for a year and a half.

In October of that year The Sentinel discovered that the lady in question was given a £30,000 pay-off by the cash-strapped health body – much to the dismay of patients’ groups.

I remember all of these cases because they are clear evidence of an elite tier of ludicrously overpaid senior staff within the public sector who are entirely unaccountable and seem immune to real world pressures.

What I want to know is how on earth, within the public sector, anyone can be allowed to negotiate a contract which is so heavily-weighted in their favour?

I’m damn sure the vast majority of the poor sods who have been made redundant by Stoke-on-Trent City Council in the last two or three years haven’t been treated in the same way as Mr Ryan, Mr Harman, or Dr Menghini.

At a time when central government is giving the public sector such a kicking perhaps it ought to focus a little more on the decision-makers who are quite clearly a law unto themselves.

It is time we stopped rewarding failure and self-service and instead started to value the loyal, hard-working majority of public sector workers who – like their private sector counterparts – are bearing the brunt of the double-dip recession.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel