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Taxpayers' pressure group demands answers over council spending

By Brentwood Gazette  |  Posted: June 21, 2012

  • COUNTY HALL: "Essex County Council must demonstrate that it has taken on board the serious concerns raised in the 2009 Audit Commission report about how it controls procurement card use" says the Taxpayers' Alliance

  • Oriental dining: The Zen Noodle Bar in Chelmsford is just a short walk from County Hall

  • What's this for?: Council officers paid over £2,131.80 to the Brentwood Orthodontic Centre in the High Street

  • CMUK20120614A-323_C.JPG 'Costs which must be met': Employees visited Ingatestone Saddlery on 12 occasions, spending £1,362.60

  • Fees: £661.80 was spent at Ongar Leisure Centre

  • Fast food: P-card transactions released to the Gazette show that council officers visited the Wimpy restaurant in Wickford High Street

  • Subsistence: £57 was spent at Nando's in Brentwood High Street

  • Luxurious: Officers spent £2,206.50 at The Five Lakes Hotel (now known as the Crowne Plaza) in Tolleshunt Knights

  • Transparency: Eric Pickles MP

  • Investigation: David Kendall

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THE news that Essex County Council officers are using taxpayer-funded P-cards to buy fast food, groceries, cosmetics, souvenirs, cinema tickets, clothing, chocolate and alcohol, among other items, has sparked calls for greater transparency.

Pressure group The TaxPayers' Alliance, which campaigns for a low tax society, believes the council should justify all expenses it incurs.

Campaign manager Robert Oxley said: "Taxpayers will be left gobsmacked that their money has been spent on the council living it up at night clubs plus stays at five star hotels, shoe shining and even hat cleaning.

"Residents will be left wondering why they are picking up bills totalling tens of thousands of pounds at country clubs, florists, bakeries and record shops.

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"The receipts suggest officers at Essex County Council have been enjoying the high life at taxpayers' expense."

He added: "These cards can be an efficient way of paying necessary bills, but there must be transparency to prevent inappropriate use and save taxpayers' money.

"Council staff must justify their expenses when they use the cards and itemised bills should be published automatically so that taxpayers can scrutinise exactly how their money is spent."

He added: "Ess- ex County Council must demonstrate that it has taken on board the serious concerns raised in the 2009 Audit Commission report about how it controls procurement card use.

"The council needs to get its house in order and with many examples of wasteful spending having been exposed in recent months, urgent steps are needed to convince residents it can still be trusted."

As the coalition's local government secretary, Brentwood and Ongar MP Eric Pickles has been vocal in his expectation that councils should be both transparent and prudent with how they spend public money.

Indeed, spend on P-cards in his own Government department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, decreased from £341,698 in 2010/11 to £109,496 in 2011/12.

Furthermore, the number of civil servants who hold these cards in his department has fallen from 210 to 33.

Mr Pickles told the Gazette: "People at Essex County Council need to realise that it isn't Essex's money, it isn't the Government's money, it is the public's money and the public have a right to know how it is being spent."

Mr Pickles called on the council to publish all its P-card transactions online, saying: "If they do that, you are not likely to get money spent on cosmetics and McDonald's."

The minister added: "I am sure Essex will now look carefully at the number of people holding these cards because it strikes me as being excessive."

Liberal Democrat county councillor David Kendall, who represents Brentwood South, said he would be calling for an independent inquiry.

"There needs to be an investigation into a number of specific claims that have been made," he said.

"It is very important to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.

"Some people have got some serious explaining to do."

He added: "This story won't be popular at County Hall but I commend the Gazette for uncovering this information.

"I am looking forward to hearing the council's response."

Fellow Lib Dem member Barry Aspinell, elected in Brentwood North, added: "This is excessive and it needs a thorough investigation."

Brentwood Borough Council does not use P-cards.

Its leader Louise McKinlay said: "Taxpayers' money must always be spent wisely to ensure need and the best value for money."

Meanwhile, Brentwood Conservative borough councillor Russell Quirk, who plans to run for County Hall when its members are up for election next year, said: "I worry sincerely that the powers that be at Essex have lost control of the taxpayer funds that they are entrusted to preside over."

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  • Dianomite  |  June 25 2012, 7:48AM

    I'd like to comment about the newspaper's front page headline this week (June 21st) – regarding the councils credit card spend. Whilst I am rather loathed to write in supporting the council I feel that on this occasion I must do. I work at County Hall and nobody I know has a P-card that they use to spend frivolously. In fact I don't think I know anyone that has a P-card full stop!! (757 out of 41,000 employees have one apparently – that's just about 2%, although that then makes the £5 million spend in two years by them sound even more worrying so I'll stop going on about that point!) I can't see any of the colleagues I know ever inappropriately using a company credit card 'if it was in front of them, and they could get away with it'. I believe my colleagues know that is called stealing. I do know of many colleagues (and myself included) though that often give up trying to claim back for minor expenses that they are entitled to receive remuneration for because the process is just such a pain!! May I remind you that we council workers are tax payers too?? We are just as enraged – maybe even more so – when we see the council wasting money. Some of the things I know about that go on at County Hall make my blood boil!! I don't know why I continue to work there sometimes (especially when the county's newspaper seems to be against us and likes to get others riled up without getting or giving them the full facts first!) Although there are lazy workers everywhere there are also many many people at the council that work there because they really do want to help make a difference to the lives of the people of Essex. They continue to work hard, despite 'attacks' from your newspaper, despite lack of support from their employer (the council), despite uneasy times through restructuring, despite lack of understanding from the very people they are trying to help. Sometimes they work too hard and end up making themselves seriously ill – or even killing, or at least thinking about killing, themselves. I agree we are entitled to know what our council is spending (especially after the whole Lord Hanningfield saga!) but let us all remember that sometimes there is actually a valid story behind why an amount was spent. Who knows – perhaps that £35 for the haircut was needed because the child was seriously ill – they perhaps couldn't travel to a hairdresser that could do it for cheaper. Maybe they had special requirements that only a few places could cope with. Maybe that child had a horrendous year and that haircut actually meant the world to them, was a real treat, and helped lift them from depression. Who knows?! The spending on nightclubs sounds strange – but then I remember when I was in sixth form helping out with a programme taking kids with special needs to Dukes (as it was then) during the day for a little party........ I'd like to share two quotes I feel are relevant – 'we are often judged on the decisions we make, not on what our options were at the time' and 'not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted'. Maybe the newspaper and its readers might like to bear these in mind before being too quick to jump on the bandwagon for the next sensational story that comes along??!

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