Taxpayer pays high price as councils join jet set

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HIGH-FLYING public servants in Yorkshire have charged taxpayers for club class flights, stays in luxury hotels and trips as far afield as San Francisco, Mumbai and Vancouver as part of the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on hotels and flights by public bodies in the region each year.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed a catalogue of domestic and foreign trips taken by executives, officers and elected members from local councils and NHS trusts in Yorkshire over the past three years, despite warnings of looming spending cuts.

The public bodies concerned have said all the trips were necessary for staff development purposes, or for important council or NHS business.

But in the first of a two-part special report detailing some of the spending on flights and hotels, the Yorkshire Post today reveals how one local authority, Bradford Council, has, on average, been spending nearly £9,000-a-month on flights and hotels since 2008.

A list of nearly 800 hotel bookings made by the council over the past two years includes well over 100 nights at establishments costing at least £150 per night.

Flights taken by Bradford Council staff included an £8,000 trip to Dubai and £5,000 club class flight to Hong Kong. The council said trips to such far-flung destinations generally involved work for the West Yorkshire Pension Fund, a public sector scheme it runs on behalf of several local authorities, from which it can claim the money back.

NHS Doncaster Primary Care Trust spent nearly £5,000 sending staff on a week-long fact-finding mission to Vancouver, and £4,500 sending a team of employees to study “breast-feeding best practice” in Norway.

Yorkshire’s smallest district council, Craven, spent more than £25,000 on hotel bills over a three-year period accommodating a string of interim staff and consultants from outside the region.

North Lincolnshire Council spent nearly £10,000 on fact-finding visits across Europe to destinations including Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia.

The chief executive of NHS Hull Primary Care Trust spent £3,500 of taxpayers’ money flying club class to India with British Airways, for a week-long Government-backed management programme.

Councillors from Ryedale District Council stayed in £200-a-night London hotels such as The Grand at Trafalgar Square while attending seminars in the city.

With councils and health trusts under extreme pressure to cut costs and thousands of public sector workers fearing for their futures, union leaders last night attacked the spending and said even the smallest outlay by public sector bosses must be justified when jobs are at risk.

“Our simple view is that no unnecessary expenses should be paid out of the public purse,” said Unison regional organiser Robert Demaine. “Of course it can be necessary for council executives to stay in London, but it’s case of whether you choose the Holiday Inn or the Hilton. There’s absolutely no need to stay in some of these luxury places. Sometimes these events are essential, and sometimes they are a nice night out and a free dinner. It doesn’t give the right public impression.

“You’ve got to remember the background to this is job losses and quibbling over pennies in the pay packets of lower-paid staff.”

All the public bodies have defended their spending on flights and hotels as a tiny part of their overall budgets, and insisted best value was sought whenever trips were being booked.

Reasons given for domestic and foreign trips included training sessions, conferences, seminars, fact-finding missions, and trips abroad to promote the local area.

The Local Government Association said foreign trips were often vital to promote trade.

A spokesman said: “Forging links abroad is an important way of generating investment, developing cultural ties, boosting trade and creating jobs in the UK.

“Obviously all councils need to demonstrate that meetings held abroad are in the interests of the people they represent.”

Special Report: Page Four. Comment: Page 14.

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