‘You need a thick skin for this job. I don’t clerk where I live. I don’t want to run into people in the supermarket and have them ask why certain council decisions were made. Sometimes members of the public can’t understand why you don’t just sort out their problems for them.’

Job: Parish Clerk 
Typical hours: Variable –15 hours a week office for one council, 18 hours a months for another, and a further 8-10 hours more for an ad-hoc locum role. 
Profile: Emma is 50 and lives in the Midlands.

Career history

I worked for a FTSE 100 company as a Corporate Executive for years before I retrained as a Primary School Teacher in 2016, which was something I’d always wanted to do. I loved it but things changed in 2020 with the pandemic. I taught from home or to an empty classroom doing online lessons which was terrible. At the same time, my husband’s industry was decimated by the pandemic, and he was able to take voluntary redundancy into retirement. We moved out to the coast and I switched to working as a Supply Teacher so we could spend time together. 

I thought it’d be nice to have a little bit of extra income coming in and I heard about a Parish Clerk role. I didn’t know what to expect but I interviewed for it, got the role, and started training. I got COVID in March 2022 and it knocked me for six. I t couldn’t go and stand in front of 30 little children again, so I left teaching and switched to clerking instead.

My working day

When people think of a Clerk, they think of perhaps a PA to a Councillor, or someone doing a secretarial role. My job is much more involved. I take minutes and produce agendas, but I also maintain a website and I'm responsible for financial and legal filings. I’m the person that councillors approach when they have a question about whether we have a duty or power to act in a certain circumstance. I need to know whether we can legally do something or not. I'm not a Receptionist, and I'm only a Secretary in the legal sense of a secretarial role where I'm the one who is relied on to know what we can and cannot do under law. 

What I’m doing can really vary. Some weeks are very quiet, and I’ll be checking a few emails, things like that. But then on the week leading up to a council meeting, I’ll have to compile an agenda, get financial information together, and ensure the minutes are available from a previous meeting. Then there are the council meetings themselves, and after the meeting, there's usually a flurry of activity for me where I'm taking care of tasks and drafting new minutes and things like that. My role as a responsible Financial Officer is not just to make sure the books are straight, but to ensure the council that taxpayers are getting the best value for their money. 

Work-life balance

It’s not unheard of for clerks to be working for up to six councils simultaneously. I currently work for three parish councils. The first clerking role I got was at a small village council, where I’m the sole employee. I work 18 hours a month from home as there is no parish office. It’s very flexible provided I get things out when they legally need to be done. An agenda for a meeting must be posted three clear days in advance, for example. I also do the year end finances, which involves updating asset registers, filling out a copious number of forms and sending them off to an auditor, and organising an internal audit.

Job design

At my largest council, I’m a Deputy Clerk and I report to a Proper Officer who has several operatives working under her. I work 15 hours a week for them in their offices and one of things I do is oversee the burial authority side of things, like reserving a burial plot. At the third council, where I’ve been working as a Locum Clerk, the job is a mix of home and office working. There’s also someone in a cleaning/caretaking role that I manage. I like being at home and having flexibility but it’s also good to go into an office and interact with other people. No two days are the same and that’s something I really enjoy about it.

Pay and benefits

The wage for a clerking role tends to reflect the responsibilities that a council has. Some councils are responsible for grass cutting, the village hall, playing fields, allotments, a burial ground, car parks, public toilets and so on, whilst others have none of these. For every extra thing you’re responsible for as a Clerk, you tend to get paid another point on the scale. For the smallest councils, a clerk would earn about a pound an hour over the minimum wage. The wages also tend to be higher when you’re qualified. I’ve been supported by my smallest council to take the qualifications necessary to become a professionally qualified Clerk. The qualifications help to develop a foundation for what we do as a Clerk, and what we could do for our communities.

For the legal training you need, and the things that you're responsible for, the basic clerking wage really is pittance. You can see why there’s a recruitment problem. It sounds like a Typist and it’s not much above the minimum wage but there’s a lot of responsibility. I think when people find out what's involved they might say that it’s not worth it for the money. You can make that much in jobs without having to deal with, sometimes, horrible people – councillors or members of the public. Having said that, with the amount of experience I’ve got, I feel like I get a pretty good deal overall. But the difference in wages between the three different councils is almost three pounds an hour, which is quite significant. I want to try and regularise this across my jobs once I have my certification. 

Health and wellbeing

I left my corporate job because I was stressed out and that made me re-evaluate things. Then when I was supply teaching, I turned down a few jobs so that I could be at home with husband and see him every day for lunch, go for a walk, things like that. That meant more to me than any job, pay, certification or anything else. It’s all about the work life balance for me. I have that now because I put my foot down. When my 15 hours are done, I leave, or I won’t go into the office every day if it’s unnecessary. I’m clear from the start that if you don't like that, then you don't have to hire me. I plant my foot very firmly on the floor.

Relationships and work

The Clerk reports to the council, not one individual. Even the smallest council should have a HR committee. This is typically made up of the Vice Chair and a few other councillors, not the Chair as they would deal with any appeals. The committee is the group that conducts appraisals, recommends one for increments or deals with disciplinary actions. You'll either find out that a council has had a number of clerks in the past couple of years, or that they've had the same clerk forever. The Clerk isn’t supposed to change when the council changes, but you'll find that if a new council comes in, that can mean the clerk is put in an unworkable situation.

I have resigned from a council that I was with for a few months once because the councillors asked me to sacrifice my integrity, which I absolutely refuse to do, so I quit. There’s always a risk of a personality clash. You find that there are councillors on a massive power trip who think you’re their Personal Assistant and should do whatever they ask you to do. 

Reflections

You need a thick skin for this job. I don’t clerk where I live. I don’t want to run into people in the supermarket and have them ask why certain council decisions were made. Sometimes members of the public can’t understand why you don’t just sort out their problems for them when the parish council might not even be responsible for these things. I know other clerks who’ve been approached by people when they’re out for dinner. A clerk doesn’t vote, a clerk doesn’t make decisions but even so, you feel like a rock star or something with the attention sometimes. You have to say ‘I’m in the middle of dinner, do you mind not bothering me? I’m not working now.’

Thinking points for people managers

  • Review and agree the job description for the role, so the duties, responsibilities and parameters are clear.  
  • Undertake a benchmarking exercise to evaluate whether the rate of pay is at the appropriate level, in view of the duties being undertaken and the level of commitment required.
  • Consider whether the contracts currently in place reflect the requirements of the role in terms of hours of work and requirements in relation to both commitment and flexibility.
  • Determine whether there are opportunities for collaborative work between the Parish Councils, which would enable both efficiencies and consistency where appropriate.
  • Ensure there are appropriate codes of conduct in place, which all employees and members of the council are aware of and adhere to.

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