And amid the dire financial crisis Herefordshire Council finds itself in, over £35,000 has haemorrhaged, with those at the top personally benefitting.
In 2011 councillors were each allocated a £1,000 allowance over a three-year term to buy ICT equipment, a move designed to reduce paper work and encourage tablet computer use in council meetings.
Herefordshire Council decided not to use its buying power to bulk-purchase the necessary 58 tablets—and thereby obtaining the best value for money—but instead allowed each councillor the freedom to purchase whatever ICT equipment they saw fit.
And under allowance rules all computers automatically become the personal property of the councillor, not the council.
After an eight-month freedom of information battle—which initially saw the council refuse to let us see copies of councillors’ expenses unless we visited their offices in person—the Hereford Heckler can reveal the scale of the financial abuse.
A total of £36,122.86 was given away to councillors during the first two years since the scheme began (2011–2013).
Carolyn Cameron, the council’s senior governance support officer, told us that “equipment purchased by councillors under the scheme belongs to the councillor and will not be returned to the council at the end of their term in office”.
We were also told that councillors already have dedicated IT facilities at the council’s Brockington headquarters on Hafod Road.
“In addition, all councillors receive a crypto-card following election, which enables them to hot-desk from any council building [in the county] or wherever is convenient to them.”
A total of £19,960.04 was claimed in 2011–2012 for ICT expenses. The year’s top spenders were:
• Cllr Jonathan Lester, who claimed £999 for an Apple iMac computer;
• Cllr Marcelle Lloyd-Hayes, who claimed the full £1,000 for an Apple MacBook Air;
• Cllr Peter Sinclair-Knipe, who also claimed the full £1,000 for a Dell PC;
• Cllr Gary Swinford, who claimed £999 for an Apple MacBook Pro laptop.
Claims in 2012–2013 were down slightly on the previous year, totalling £16,162.82. Four top spenders all claimed the full £1,000:
• Cllr Carl Attwood, who bought an Apple MacBook Air laptop;
• Cllr Phil Cutter, who bought an Acer desktop computer, Acer Iconia tablet, keyboard dock and stylus;
• Cllr Barry Durkin, who bought an Apple iPad, Sony laptop and anti-glare film for an iPhone;
• Cllr Anthony Powers, who bought an Asus laptop, Acer monitor, Samsung Galaxy tablet, an external hard drive and a Vodafone Sure Signal 3G booster box.
Out of these eight, two councillors’ claims particularly stood out:
• Cllr Marcelle Lloyd-Hayes, It’s Our County member for Tupsley ward and a Ledbury Road resident, lives within walking distance of several council offices and with her own dedicated IT resource at Brockington just 10-minutes away on foot. Lloyd-Hayes, who undoubtedly had IT facilities at home prior to her 2011 claim, saw it fit to use council money to buy herself a top-spec computer.
We got in touch with Cllr Lloyd-Hayes and asked whether she thought spending £1,000 for unnecessary equipment was a gross misuse of public money. We were told she would “use IOC WEBSITE [sic] for those interested in my expenses”. To date she has said nothing on her party’s website regarding the ICT allowance;
• The invoice for Cllr Peter Sinclair-Knipe’s £1,047.60 Dell PC was made out to his business, The SK Partnership. Can the council be sure that the Conservative member for Hollington ward has not abused his allowance in order to obtain IT equipment for his private businesses, which include Social Season Hatters, an online retailer?
We asked Cllr Sinclair-Knipe for further information on his ICT spending, which he refused to give. Instead we were advised to contact the council’s monitoring officer.
Cllr Carl Attwood told us that home IT facilities are essential.
“Some of the work I have been asked to do as part of my councillor duties has required the writing of a document which when fully published with all the supporting papers will run to around 500 pages.
“This has to date occupied over 120 hours work, much of which would have been nigh impossible to do carting all the paperwork to council offices and often at out-of-office hours.”
All other councillors featured in this article were given the opportunity to respond but refused our invitation.*
Important questions need to be asked: Why is responsibility for IT procurement not given to council staff? And why don’t councillors return all work-related IT equipment when their term in office ends?
A review of the ICT and consumables allowance is due to take place prior to next year’s local elections.
*CORRECTION: Only Cllrs Attwood, Cutter, Lloyd-Hayes and Sinclair-Knipe out of the eight featured in this article were contacted for a response.