1. ITV Report

Somerset County Council leader defends huge salaries for officers

Peter Lewis, head of child protection, costs the council £318,500 a year Photo: ITV News Westcountry

Somerset County Council's leader has come out fighting in defence of the third of a million pounds it's costing to employ the man in charge of children's services.

Critics say the £750,000 being spent on three managers in Somerset is far too much. They were drafted in after an Ofsted report judged the service inadequate.

It's been claimed the head of Somerset's Children's Services, Peter Lewis, is one of the most expensive council employees in Britain. Mr Lewis costs £318,500 pounds a year.Two temporary deputies cost a further £422,500 pounds between them. The total for the three managers is £741,000.

To put that in context, if an agency fee of 10 per cent is taken off, and the agency says the exact figure is commercially sensitive, Mr Lewis would receive £287,000, more than twice the Prime Minister's salary of £142,000 pounds.

Over past few years there have been many protests as staff numbers at County Hall have been cut. There have been wage freezes and below inflation pay rises. So there's more anger that Mr Lewis works for a firm owned by him and his wife. His salary is paid into the company meaning he can pay tax on dividends at 21 per cent instead of PAYE at 45 and 40 per cent.

It's perfectly legal but the government has banned the practice in the Civil Service and in the NHS. We wanted to question Mr Lewis about his tax arrangements and to ask whether he chose to pay extra tax voluntarily but our request was turned down.

Penna tell me the use of limited companies by interim managers is standard practice and they say Mr Lewis is a highly skilled interim manager with 40 years experience and is highly regarded in the industry as a specialist in Children's Services.

Meanwhile Mr Lewis has now written to staff saying media interest shouldn't distract them from the important work they are doing improving child protection.

"We have so many good hardworking people, on the ground looking after vulnerable children but those people need co-ordination and they need leadership. Unfortunately there is a national shortage of people who want to be Directors of Children's Services, that means we have had to bring in an interim appointment to fill this post and obviously to fill this post it has cost us a little bit more."

– Cllr John Osman, Somerset County Council leader

"It's just an exorbitant sum of money. It's completely unnecessary, nobody needs to be paid this amount of money, the main salary the £318,500 is actually over £100,000 more than any other officer in the whole of this country. That is just an extraordinary sum, it's completely out of kilter, this is rural Somerset for God's sake!"

– Tessa Munt MP, Lib Dem, Wells

"There's an enormous amount of temporary and agency staff in at a great cost to the authority. I can only speak for the area I represent in South Somerset and I know there there is a 40 per cent vacancy rate, a lot of that is being covered with agency staff but you can't get away from the fact you don't have that stability and continuity."

– Cllr Jane Lock, leader of Lib Dem group