CREDIT card transactions from three of Sussex’s biggest councils show exactly how the authorities used town hall plastic over the last two-and-a-half years. In an exclusive report, BEN LEO investigates why one council spent nearly £2,000 at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and another splashed out £10,000 on McDonalds as well as more than £14,000 on coffees
COUNCIL credit card statements reveal local authority staff, officers and councillors used town hall plastic to fund trips abroad, meals out at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and tens of thousands of pounds on coffee and fast-food purchases.
An Argus investigation into spending at Brighton and Hove City Council, West Sussex County Council and East Sussex County Council shows the authorities spent nearly £400 on children’s toys for staff training, more than £12,000 at higher-end Waitrose and Marks & Spencer supermarkets and nearly £200 on a ‘crisis management’ book.
Critics say the councils should have “better judgement and shop around for the best deals” when spending – but the authorities say their purchases were legitimate.
Records dating back to 2012 show Brighton and Hove City Council spent £1,653 at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Black Lion Street – including individual bills of £625.85 and £515.88 a sitting – and more than £800 at Moshi Moshi – now known as Moshimo – in Bartholomew Square.
The council’s credit card was used for £500 on dining at Chilli Pickle, Jubilee Street, £500 at English’s seafood restaurant in East Street, and £190 at Food for Friends. A council staff member also spent £160 at As Ouhès restaurant in Liege, Belgium.
Statements also reveal that Brighton and Hove City Council cards paid for a £115 bag of coffee from the Coffee Bag Company, £155 on tickets to comedy club Komedia and £25 at chilli-pepper store Chilli Pepper Pete’s.
Additionally, town hall cards were used to pay for £1,700 of “gifts” –including purchases worth hundreds of pounds each at Montezuma’s chocolate, Infinity Foods and Pecksniffs.
It spent a further £20,000 on hotels, £3,700 on attending conferences, £12,500 on train tickets and nearly £4,000 on flights and ferries abroad.
Brighton and Hove City Council said all the meals, gifts and accommodation transactions listed above were for visiting journalists with VisitBrighton – all paid for from membership fees of the organisation and not taxpayers’ money.
Green councillor Ollie Sykes, lead member for finance and resources, said: “Council credit cards are used to purchase goods and services when this is the most efficient and practical payment method.
“Cards offer greater flexibility and security and are administratively very efficient. In many cases the costs of items purchased are covered by fees charged for services.
“For example, conference fees bring in far more income than the outgoing costs. Also our tourism arm, VisitBrighton, is funded by membership fees and works with local businesses to showcase the city.”
At county level, parched town hall staff at West Sussex County Council have spent more than £14,000 on coffee and £15,000 on fast food – including more than £10,000 at McDonalds – since the start of 2012.
Scores of different transactions show £2,679 was spent at Costa Coffee, £10,716 at Esquire Coffee, £2,050 at KFC, £10,006 at McDonalds, £1,378 at Dominos Pizza, £1,087 at Subway and more than £5,000 at Pizza Hut and Pizza Express.
The transactions were all made on the council’s ‘P cards’ – a purchasing card used to replace the traditional credit card.
A spokeswoman from West Sussex County Council (WSCC) said the cards covered spend at children’s homes, voluntary funds and client expenses.
She said: “Children under the care of WSCC receive money both from WSCC and relatives and they are allowed to spend this as they wish, which accounts for a large amount of this spend.
“Children’s homes and care homes also do their grocery shopping online via the supermarkets using P cards.”
Elsewhere, bosses at East Sussex County Council spent £320 on flights to Greece for one of its officers to attend a conference organised as part of an “EU-funded project aimed at assisting smaller local ports to operate sustainably”.
A council spokesman said: “Like all participants in this project we were required to actively participate and share our knowledge and experience with other partners.”
The authority’s credit card was also used to buy a £400 Brighton and Hove Albion season ticket for a dementia patient and more than £300 on 100 ‘mini koosh balls’ – children’s toys made of rubber – that were used in a staff training session.
East Sussex County Council added that it used taxpayers’ money “very seriously indeed” and all expenditure had to have a legitimate purpose.
A spokesman said: “The balls were used by many organisations for training purposes. In this case, we purchased 100 koosh balls which are being used as one small aspect of an ongoing training programme for managers.”
“We are an organisation employing around 15,000 people with responsibilities ranging from highways to schools and public health and, as with any large organisation, there will be the need for a variety of purchases to enable staff in our various departments to carry out their functions. This expenditure is recorded and regularly audited to ensure that public money is not being spent unnecessarily.”
In December, local government minister Eric Pickles issued new guidance for local authorities to publish key spending data. The new Transparency Code, which is mandatory for all councils whose gross income exceeds £6.5 million, will force authorities to publish spending on corporate credit cards every quarter for transactions of more than £500.
Mr Pickles said: “Councils need to make sensible savings to help freeze council tax and protect front-line services. This new wave of town hall transparency will empower armchair auditors to expose municipal waste – from surplus offices and corporate credit cards to trade union ‘pilgrims’, and help councillors drive down costs. Greater power for local government must go hand in hand with greater local transparency and local accountability.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government said the code came into force this month.
Dia Chakravarty, political director at The TaxPayers’ Alliance, said of the Sussex councils: “Some of these expenses will leave taxpayers completely baffled. At a time when families are struggling, how can councils possibly see fit to spend residents’ money on dining at fashionable restaurants and expensive foreign travel? Councils really must show better judgment and shop around for the best deal when spending taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.”
The new Local Government Transparency Code 2014
The new transparency code will be mandatory for all councils whose gross income exceeds £6.5 million. Councils are required to publish spending on corporate credit cards, money raised from parking charges, trade union facility time, contracts and tenders, property assets and grants to voluntary and community groups.
Spending more than £500, transactions on government cards and procurement information for values above £5,000 should be published quarterly under the new legislation. Details of officers’ salaries above £50,000, land and assets owned, and grants to voluntary, community and social enterprise groups should be published annually.
In the past five years, £440 million of taxpayers’ money has been splashed using council credit cards.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance said some transactions include dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, golf lessons, trips to exotic destinations and even pedicures.
A total of £3.7 million was spent on foreign travel, with jet-setting Birmingham City Council visiting almost a quarter of the countries in the world at a cost equivalent to 285 families’ annual council tax bill. Oldham sent employees to Hong Kong and China, saying the trips were were “useful for nurturing investment opportunities”.
Other examples include a £30 million bill for chauffeur-driven cars. Some councils have been running fleets of Jaguars, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
Sunderland City Council spent £1,142.89 at the five-star Cape Royal hotel and spa in Cape Town during the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, with a further bill of £6,167 run up on another trip to South Africa. The council said that their spending was “appropriate”.