The Liberal Democrat leader on Northampton Borough Council says it is a “legal requirement” for the local authority to appoint a taxpayer-funded political assistant for her party.
At a meeting next week, councillors are due to discuss a review of political assistants to the three main groups on the council following a number of recent defections.
According to legislation the borough council follows, every party that has more than 10 per cent of the councillors is entitled to a political assistant.
There can only be a maximum of three political assistant jobs, which pay an estimated annual salary of £24,000 a year, allocated to the three biggest groups.
After the last election, a political assistant was appointed for the Conservatives, who have 27 council members and Labour who have 12, but the Liberal Democrats, who had four members, were not given one as they did not have enough councillors to meet the 10 per cent threshold.
However, following the recent defection of Councillor Mick Ford from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, the party now has more than 10 per cent of the councillors on the local authority (five councillors equals 11.1 per cent of the 45 members of the council).
Councillor Sally Beardsworth, leader of the Liberal Democrats said it was “the law” that a political assistant should now be recruited for the Liberal Democrats.
As with all political assistant jobs, it would be on a fixed-term contract until the next election in May 2015.
However, council leader David Mackintosh said it was “unlikely” that the council would recruit a political assistant to serve for only four months.
He said: “If you look at the current opinion polls they show the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to reach the threshold needed to have a political assistant after the election so we think it is unfair to employ someone only to make them unemployed in four months time.
”Taxpayers’ money needs to be spent wisely.”
Councillor Mackintosh also said that the purdah period before the election, which starts in March, would limit the contribution of any new political assistant.
However, Councillor Beardsworth said the Conservatives were “blatantly misinterpreting” the rules because they are “terrified of the Liberal Democrats”.
She said: “The decision of whether to appoint a political assistant to the Liberal Democrats should not be, as the council paper suggests, up to the council.
“It’s a legal requirement that if you have political assistants at all, a council must be even handed in their appointment. Council resources should not be used to strengthen one party over others. Tax payer money should not, ever, be used to support a personal agenda.
“Sadly, the only reason we can see for the council to be so blatantly misinterpreting the rules that govern this is because the Conservatives are so terrified of the Liberal Democrats that they intend to deny the right to even handed support.
“Political assistants can be extremely beneficial – they provide administrative and political support and advice to make sure the councillors are as effective in representing their residents as they can possibly be.
“Unfortunately Councillor Mackintosh doesn’t want an opposition, even if it does provide a vital democratic role, and the Liberal Democrats have proven themselves, even without staff support, to be the only serious opposition to his dictatorial rule.”