Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Should Thanet Councillors Have Free Food and Drinks?

My previous story on Conservative Thanet District councillors receiving free alcohol and food after Council meetings has attracted a lot of comment.

I raised the issue of the cost of food and drink after Council meetings in late 2008 and early 2009. I have a number of emails from that time on which I base this post. The figures therefore will be out of date, but the principles will remain the same. My motivation for investigating was that I thought the cost could not be justified to Council Tax Payers.

I have also been concerned since my election in 2007 at the role alcohol plays for some councillors. It is my personal view that this is wrong and I have been disappointed at the ‘old school’ councillors who see alcohol as lubricating the political process.

When I first requested the cost of these meetings from Council officers I did not get a very helpful response. I then made requests under the Freedom of Information Act and still received only a partial response. I then spoke to the then Council Chairman John Kirby, and he was very helpful and transparent. As soon as he became involved the previous logjam preventing release of information fell away. I think it interesting to note that officers were defensive about this request.

He advised me (and bear in mind my memory is of a couple of years ago) that it was custom and practice that the Chair of Council provided a reception after Council meetings. The Chair is paid an allowance. They then use that allowance to buy food and drink for councillors after the meeting. So technically the money is the Chair’s personal money, but it is acknowledged that this is expected of any individual carrying out the job. This has been the case for some years. So, technically the provision of refreshments is outsourced to the Chair of Council's personal allowance but effectively as I understand it the money is expected to come from their allowance which is provided by taxpayers.

However, this food and drink are not the only costs, there are other extra costs. These are the costs the Council was reluctant to divulge. There have in the past been council staff who have ordered the drinks, collected the drinks and set up the drinks and food. There is the Chair of Council’s attendant who stays behind and then drives the Chair of Council home after the meeting. There are the security and reception staff, who keep the buildings open and have to remain being paid while councillors eat and drink. In addition there is heating, lighting, motoring and other running costs. These costs were being incurred for a couple of hours after each Council meeting purely so that councillors could enjoy free alcoholic drinks and food, what might be called a private party.

Costs clearly vary from meeting to meeting and the number of meetings in a year but an approximate cost of £2,000 a year in 2009 for all these costs of refreshments, staff and heating, chauffeuring etc seemed about right. An exact figure could not be provided due to the need for confidentiality in relation to Council staff working hours and overtime claims.

John Kirby thought this a worthwhile expense; I thought the money could be better spent in other ways. The newspaper article highlights this. John’s figure was for food and drink, my larger figure for all costs. John also was mindful of people’s perceptions and had changed arrangements. There had been cases in the past where Chairs of Council attended meetings and then had a good “session” knowing they had a Council tax funded chauffeur to take them and their friend’s home. I know John Kirby on several occasions provided his own transport to and from meetings depending on his diary commitments, to minimise costs. He also got rid of the arrangement where council staff were going out and buying alcohol and then distributing it and serving it to councillors – not an essential front line service!

He arranged to go and buy drink himself (from Tesco if my memory serves me!) and deliver it, whereas I’m told Council vehicles had been used in the past. All good reforms but still in my view insufficient.

I still took the view that as councillors we would be better off buying our own refreshments and using the clubs and pubs of Margate after meetings if we wished to socialise. I could not justify the costs of staff, heating, lighting, chauffeuring etc for what was in effect a “private party”.

If officers asked could they please keep the Town hall open for a private party councillors would say ‘No’; why should councillors regard themselves differently?

John Kirby was succeeded by Margaret Sheldrick as Chair of Thanet Council in 2009. She has been similarly transparent about this matter to John Kirby, and operated to the same high standards. She has been an advocate of modernisation and is sympathetic to the idea of Thanet allowing twitter and facebook updating at meetings by councillors. Many other councils allow this as does the House of Commons.

I think it is important to recognise that the issue is not one of the John Kirby or Margaret Sheldrick as Chair of Council having responsibility. Their role is largely symbolic and non-political. They do not authorise the money so that the Town Hall stays open for these social events. It is the Conservative cabinet Chris Wells, Martin Wise, Simon Moores and Roger Latchford lead by Bob Bayford who do so. They are the people who need to be held to political account.

All five of these plead in public there are hard times and there is no money. They then have the opportunity to go and have free alcoholic drinks and food at the taxpayers’ expense. I can only estimate that the cost they currently authorise for this is conservatively £1,000 a year for staff security, heating, lighting, staff and other costs. I think that shows how they prioritise spending for people in Thanet.

In a way it does not matter whether the cost is £100, £1,000 or £10,000 with tight financial times I think there are other priorities. I know some Conservatives agree. I know all my Labour colleagues agree. Like me they would rather see this money spent for the community.
In my Northwood ward both Coleman Crescent Recreation Area (see pictures on left) and Jackey Bakers play area need new children’s play facilities. I think this money would be better spent prioritised for children to play rather than councillors to have a free drink.

My thanks to Cllr. John Watkins who occasionally drinks in the Royal British Legion in Margate at his own expense after Council meetings, for his help researching this.


  1. Well thank you for some of the clarification, Mark, you have clearly been looking into this for some time and have a great deal of detail the rest of us are without. Two things you miss: firstly the invitation is for all Councillors, clearly stated at the start of each meeting; so it is a personal choice to attend, and Labour Councillors could attend, as does at least one independent; secondly we are talking about four times a year, lest people believe this is happening every week.

    I have stated elsewhere, I am neither a fan of this process, nor a detractor; I can see it has some uses, and criticisms that could be levelled at it. I do note, however, that you claim total support for this point of view from the Labour Group, who conspicuously did not propose doing away with this as a budget amendment, as The Lib Dems did at County.

    I would ask why your leadership made this decision, but that might be alittle unfair in current circumstances!

    PS Cabinet is 5, the smallest in Kent, smaller than the wished for shadow cabinet, including Simon Moores.

  2. If all you have to criticise the council on is whether or not they should have refreshment after a meeting, then I would suggest you are scratching around for ammunition to fire at them.

    Perhaps it would be more helpful, with an election coming up and in light of your own position, if you could tell us what Labour might do to improve Thanet and what ideas you would bring to the role if you were leader.

  3. To be fair to Mark, all he has done is answered the questions which others have been asking on other websites.

    I read his blog (when he posts!) and was pleased to see him return, even if it is a somewhat censured Blog due to what I feel is a misplaced loyalty to his Labour colleagues.

    Everyone in local council should be agreeing that the provision of free food and drinks after Council meetings is an unnecessary expenditure which can be saved. If the parties can't work together to agree on something as small as this then what hope has Thanet got?

  4. Sadly, the introduction of politics into local government after WWII ended co-operation in the main. Now it is too political point scoring orientated with the next election in mind all the time. I for one would love to see Thanet's most able people, of whatever political persuassion, coming together to move the old place forward, but then I am a Gemini!

  5. Oh Bluenote, another reference to things long dead and past because it suits your hypocritical style and argument. A pity you make no comment on the misleading and seemingly duplicitous contribution from at least one of your elected Tories - on another blog I should add. Your (occasionally) finely and evenly worded offerings mask a complete trough of bias.

  6. 20:57 We would never know if you were anything but politically biased because you hide behind your anonymous screen. If you read the thread, instead of always looking to attack me on sight, you would appreciate that I was responding to an earlier comment calling for councillors to work together. I would also like to see councillors working together but the introduction of politics, historic though it may be, makes that much harder to achieve.

    Your reaction to me says it all. Because you assume I must be a Tory, you don't like me yet, I could be a really nice person. How bizarre is that.

  7. Sorry Bluenote, I did not realise you were looking for friendship via the blogs.

    I do not know you, so it is impossible to say whether I might like you or not. My challenge is not to you personally but to what you offer on these blogs. What I pick up from you is a) hypocrisy and b) the same sort of smokescreening and avoidance of issues that might embarrass the Tory Party that we also see from the likes of Councillors Wells and Gregory. I certainly do not like either of these characteristics/behaviours.

    Your twisting and turning continues even here. You refer to me "hid[ing] behind [my] anonymous screen". On another occasion, you expressed understanding and support for those posting anonymously, arguing against another blogger who was challenging anonymous posting. Further, you are equally anonymous - having a meaningless "name" serves only to mark your contributions, nothing more.

    And still, while we exchange these thoughts, the runaway pair of Wells and Gregory persist in not clearing up the "confusion" they have started.

  8. Anon, I have no problem with your anonymous status but only make the point that it is impossible to follow your thread. At least, taking a pen name, provides that continuity.

    Friendship, well there's a thought. Again you make assumptions for my point was that political labels place us in opposite camps thus making co-operation harder. You see me as hypocritical because I defend my stance but would that not make you guilty of the same thing for defending yours. Actually I think not for we are both entitled to our views and to express them.

    Sadly, a certain enimosity between political parties seems par for the course in this country and, only the other day, delivering some leaflets an elderly man shouted after me "All you f***ing Tories are f***ing wan**rs."
    Now what is that about. We didn't know each other yet he evidently felt the leaflet I was delivering entitled him to shout his mouth off.
    I would be appalled if any member of my family behaved in such manner to someone just because of their politics but, sadly, it happens.

    Maybe you will call this yet another red herring but it is just me letting of steam. I cannot answer your query and, as I have no means of finding out, not being privy to activities in the council inner chambers, there is no point in me trying.

  9. Mark,
    have just been reading the posts on Thanet Life about this.

    You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    The way I see it is this:

    You recently wrote a post to highlight your new website, unfortunately you put in a media article picture to break up all the text (storm in a teacup).
    You were challenged about this article on other websites and asked to give your evidence. Unlike some councillors who have ducked the issues or trivialised it to try to make you look bad, you have had the decency to explain your evidence in this post.
    For that I thank you.

    Will £1000 a year wasted on food and drinks (including all the on costs of staff, keeping buildings open later etc) after meetings make much difference in the grand scheme of things? Probably not.

    But I do know that back in 2008, the spreads were lavish with lots of alcohol and plates of food being carried across to the local conservative club after the meetings. That doesn't happen now. There has been a scaling back. So your original Blog post did make a difference.

    But for now, you're flogging a dead horse. You're sticking your neck out for what? Some of your labour colleagues appreciate what you are doing but to be honest with you, they don't deserve your efforts. Shame on them for not standing up and being counted. Supporting you from the shadows doesn't help you when you are in the firing line.

  10. I see that the Tory "Doctor" of spin has rallied his supporters with lots of predictable snorting and finger-pointing over on Thanet Life. The Tory Party has lambasted this sort of waste elsewhere, and has successfully demonised large arts of the public sector over costs since forming a Government last year. And much of their onslaught has related to small items of expenditure.

    Here, they have been caught out over a similar small item expenditure locally, but the defences have gone up and they are arguing that it should fall "below the radar" because it is insignificant compared with bigger issues floating around. That is just blatant hypocrisy which would be laughable if it was not such a serious - and sickening - feature of their policy and strategy.

    What is even worse, but is quietly being swept under the carpet by Tories Wells,, Moores, and Gregory, is the attempt that has been made on local blogs to mislead readers by the suggestion that all of these refreshments have been paid out of the Chairperson's own purse. That was clearly a lie intended to throw everyone off the scent. It was a lie specifically supported by Councillor Gregory, and it was a lie ignored by Councillors Moores and Wells, the latter running and hiding as he usually does.

    Whatever mud is travelling around local Labour at the moment - and there clearly is some - is also evident in the Blue pool.

  11. Is this right?. Chris Wells says that refreshments are only provided at 4 meeings per year. Does this mean that the full council meets only 4 times per year? If it does then councillors recieve an allowance of over £1000 per meeting. This would be the real scandal and this amount of cash would paid for plenty of food and enable those that are that way inclined to get very drunk.

  12. 8 meetings per year I believe so £500 per councillor attending the meeting. Before anyone jumps back at me, yes I am aware they do other council work in their wards etc ( Ms Dark excluded of course!) but I still think they can afford their own sandwiches... and if its been a long day, as some say, couldn't they pick up a sandwich on the way to the meeting like most people do when going about their busy lives?

  13. 1 – 1 of 1
    8 meetings per year I believe so £500 per councillor attending the meeting. Before anyone jumps back at me, yes I am aware they do other council work in their wards etc ( at least one female councillor excluded of course!) but I still think they can afford their own sandwiches... and if its been a long day, as some say, couldn't they pick up a sandwich on the way to the meeting like most people do when going about their busy lives?

  14. I stand corrected, it is 6 full council meetings in a year plus occasional extraordinary ones. Apologies.