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LOOPHOLE: Expenses row breaks out again

LOOPHOLE: Expenses row breaks out again

Stockton Labour council leader Cllr Bob Cook and Conservative group leader Cllr Tony Riordan, Image: from Stockton Council

A row has broken out once again over claims of a “slippery loophole” on councillor expenses.

Conservative group leader Cllr Tony Riordan has written to the government over concerns about expenses booked on Stockton Council credit cards – and how information is published.

But Stockton Council’s leader Bob Cook has called the move “petty political point scoring” – and accused the Tory group of having “nothing better to do”.

Figures show nine Labour members had undertaken council duties in 2019/20 involving travel and hotels which had been arranged by officers.

The sums – coming to £2,567.20 in total – weren’t put into the system and published against councillors’ names at the time.

There was heated debate about the matter at a council meeting in January – but now Cllr Riordan has written to Government minister Michael Gove seeking clarification on the law.

“Residents deserve to know exactly where their hard-earned cash is going,” said Cllr Riordan.

He added: “The people of Stockton deserve full transparency and I hope that, through my letter, we can shed some light on this slippery loophole.”

A motion passed by councillors in January this year has already agreed to publish a full list of all expenses from now on.

The debate at the time saw a Conservative motion amended slightly and then voted on which removed a push to publish all the 2019/20 expenses.

The motion passed stated: “This council will ensure all expenses incurred by councillors, and paid for by the local taxpayer, will be fully recorded, and the details outlining all of the expenses be published annually from 2020/21.”

At the time, council leader Cllr Bob Cook said the authority complied fully with members’ allowance regulations – adding expenses directly incurred by the council were on behalf of members undertaking roles.

“The reason the council went through this way of booking travel and hotels is, I believe, more cost effective for the council to do and to get value for money,” he said.

The January meeting heard arrangements had been made to change the accounting system to capture this information in future.

And the motivation of the motion on expenses was questioned at the time.

Thornaby councillor Sylvia Walmsley said there was already a great reluctance among members to claim allowances when they were entitled to – and accused the Conservatives of “scoring points”.

“Why should it be seen as if they’re taking money off the taxpayer? They are doing their jobs” she added.

Thornaby independent colleague, Cllr Ray Godwin, said: “It would be very detrimental to this council if councillors chose not to represent this council on a national level because they’re scared to claim the very expenses needed to facilitate their role.”

Cabinet member Cllr Steve Nelson also pointed to how bars and restaurants in Westminster were subsidised by up to £2m a year – urging then councillor Matt Vickers MP to ask about that.

“If you care about £2,500 for the taxpayers of Stockton, care about the millions being subsidised on the food and drink of MPs,” he said.

In the wake of the letter, Cllr Cook questioned what Cllr Riordan was doing,

He added: “We agreed we’d publish those statements which weren’t part of that – and that would be part of the disclosure of our expenses.

“It’s not been an issue (in 2020/21) because nobody went anywhere.

“Did he not realise we’d been in lockdown?”

And Cllr Cook believed the Conservatives were trying to score political points.

He said: “It was agreed that all expenses would be published including the ones booked by the council and not the councillors.

“I just think he’s trying to make petty political points and is someone who’s got nothing better to do.”

When it came to the 2019/20 figures, Cllr Cook added: “What’s the point in making work for officers when that would cost as much money as what people claimed?

“We’ve agreed to do it from the new financial year.”

The leader said the council had a lot of its mind at the moment with covid rates rising once again.

“We’re trying to make sure services keep running and these political points seem like old news,” added Cllr Cook.

 

Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter


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