A COUNCILLOR says it's "not for other people to judge" after his wife billed the taxpayer nearly £1,500 to pay for childcare during online council meetings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It comes after Tom Druitt and wife Alex Phillips, labelled "two of the wealthiest councillors" in the city, faced criticism for spending the first four months of lockdown at their second home in France.

Cllr Phillips, who used to earn more than £100,000 a year while she was a member of the European Parliament (MEP), made expense claims via an allowance scheme that campaigners say helps women "struggling financially due to childcare costs". Cllr Phillips was entitled to make those claims and there is no suggestion that she broke any rules.

During a meeting of full council, resident Laura King asked whether it is appropriate that “two of the wealthiest councillors in our leader’s Green administration are claiming for a live-in nanny during council meetings via Zoom during Covid". She also questioned whether wealth should be taken into account when giving out expenses.

Cllr Druitt told The Argus his family were "perfectly entitled" to receive cash for childcare at a time when council meetings were held virtually due to coronavirus, insisting that none of the claims relate to the period when they were in France. He also explained that the couple do not have a live-in nanny.

The Green representative for Regency ward - who is also CEO of the Big Lemon bus company - defended his wife's use of the dependent carer's allowance, saying it has "nothing to do with your financial circumstances".

Cllr Druitt said: "It's not really for other people to judge if people have made personal choices to claim expenses to which they are perfectly entitled."

The claims come after council support for a report aimed at tackling "structural and cultural barriers" which "hold back women’s participation in local government".

In 2017, the Fawcett Society found that some councils do not cover childcare costs and that this "causes women to struggle financially and in some cases stand down as councillors".

The following year, the council backed the Fawcett model for a "comprehensive" dependent carers’ allowance scheme, covering all childcare and adult dependents.

In a statement the Green group previously said: "We are proud that Brighton and Hove City Council provides support to parents where they need to arrange childcare and makes a positive offer to those with caring responsibilities.

"This change was one of the recommendations of the Fawcett Society’s report on increasing access to local government for women and carers, that was put to councillors at a public committee meeting."

When asked about his wife's use of the scheme, Cllr Druitt said: "There is a difference between why it was introduced and obviously what the rules are.

"It's nothing to do with your financial circumstances. None of this is means tested, it's available for everyone."

In the year up to April 2020, Cllr Phillips claimed almost £1,800 for childcare - during this time she was an MEP for South East England, as well as mayor of Brighton and Hove.

These roles gave her a combined annual salary of more than £100,000.

Previously, The Argus reported that in the year up to April 2021, a period of time covering the Covid crisis, she claimed £1,458 for childcare.

The bill was almost five times the total of all other councillors' expenses combined, not including subsidised parking and bus passes.

Both yearly totals exceed any childcare claim by a city councillor in the last 20 years.

Cllr Druitt told The Argus: "Before lockdown, she was attending half a dozen events a weekend.

"I think what people don't realise is how much time councillors put into the role. It's very easy to say, 'If I were in that position, I would refuse it all'.

"If you're spending a reasonable amount of money on childcare in order to allow you to attend council meetings and contribute to the city, and the expenses system is set up to enable you to do that, then I challenge anyone to say, 'I won't claim that'."

In October, members of the public quizzed council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty about the couple's expenses.

Cllr Mac Cafferty explained how a panel made decisions on allowances, considering the importance of accessibility for people from all backgrounds and circumstances, including if they are parents.

Cllr Mac Cafferty added that the Green administration wanted to "banish the days of councillors just being old men".

Members of the public raised the issue of Cllr Druitt and Cllr Phillips spending time at their French holiday home during lockdown.

Cllr Druitt has defended the couple's decision to stay in France between March 2020 and July the same year.

He said that, although the couple attended council meetings remotely while in France, no claims were made through the allowance in relation to this period.

Cllr Druitt said: "It's only actually when we got back to the UK that I had to go to the office and, therefore, Alex needed to attend meetings, because even if you're in your bedroom on your computer, you can't put a baby to bed at the same time."

The only other councillor to claim last year under the dependant carer's allowance was Labour representative Nick Childs.

The councillor for Queen's Park claimed a total of £84.00. In the previous year, he claimed £364.50.

In 2019, Cllr Childs stepped down as the council's education chief after it was revealed he sent his daughter to £40,000-a-year Roedean School.

Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said: “I haven’t yet come across a situation where it felt necessary to make claims from council resources for my own three children.

"It’s very easy to plan meetings around childcare already, especially when meetings are virtual.”

Care costs are paid to councillors rather than carers.

The hourly rate for cared-for children and dependent care rose to £9 per hour - the equivalent of the Living Wage.

Councillors can make the claim for children aged under 14.

Have you got a story for us? Email news@theargus.co.uk or contact us here.

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram to keep up with all the latest news.

Sign up to our newsletter to get updates sent straight to your inbox.

You can also call us on 01273 021 400.