Expense ‘changes’ at council in Bury St Edmunds could cost the taxpayer councillor warns

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A ‘free for all’ culture will be created if ‘changes’ to an expenses scheme are approved next week, a Bury St Edmunds councillor has claimed.

Cllr David Nettleton says a paper to be considered by St Edmundsbury Borough Council on Tuesday, could lead to councillors ‘spending three nights at the Dorchester’ at the expense of taxpayers.

The meeting on Tuesday is to consider a report on its members’ overnight subsistence policy.

Under the rules, councillors away on council business can claim £80 a night for food and hotel bills or £100 in London.

But council leader Cllr John Griffiths and senior Cllr Peter Stevens both exceeded these amounts when they attended conferences last year – Cllr Griffiths’ stay exceeded the limit by £132 over three nights while Cllr Stevens claim was £60 over the limit.

The council argued that both stays were booked by officers and that officers, under certain circumstances, have delegated authority to go over the limit.

Tuesday’s report seeks to ‘clarify’ this but Cllr Nettleton says it breaches the constitution and the council is trying to create a new rule by stealth.

“What I am saying is where in the constitution does it give officers the delegated authority to override the limits set by an independent remuneration panel? It doesn’t.”

He said he welcomed a review of the allowances scheme – one discrepancy in the existing scheme means if a council officer and a councillor attend the same conference, the councillor can claim £80 a night but the officer can only claim £50.

“But what they are trying to bring in on Tuesday is simply a way of overriding it all,” he said. “I’m sure the other councillors will vote for it but to me it’s the court of public opinion I’m worried about.

“It means councillors can stay three nights in the Dorchester. I get the impression the public won’t think this is such a great idea.

“If there is no upper limit then it is a free for all. I’m sure most private firms don’t operate like this and we are a public body, after all.”

But the council report says there are some instances where the cost of an overnight stay is included in the conference costs and exceeds the council’s limits and so is approved and paid by heads of services out of their budgets rather than claimed as expenses by councillors.

It said it was ‘too minor an issue to warrant’ its own line in the constitution but was implied in a requirement for heads of service to manage their budgets to meet cabinet priorities.