COUNCILS and NHS hospitals in Yorkshire are lavishing thousands of pounds on first-class rail tickets for senior executives despite the biggest squeeze on public spending in living memory.
Ministers have hit out at “extravagant” spending after figures released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed at least five of Yorkshire’s 22 councils and four of its NHS hospital trusts spent taxpayers’ money on first-class rail fares during 2011/12.
Most public bodies in the region told the Yorkshire Post it is strictly against their guidelines to pay for their staff to travel first class.
But Barnsley Hospital admitted spending more than £4,000 on 46 first-class rail trips for staff last year. Almost half were not booked in advance, meaning highest prices were paid.
These included several “first-class anytime return tickets” – the most expensive available – which each cost more than £200.
Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals, meanwhile, spent more than £1,200 on first-class trips over the course of the year, including two return trips from Wigan to London by its chief executive costing £395 and £416 respectively.
The trust said such trips only happen “on occasion” – but that it is now “reviewing our rules and guidance on travel expenses for all staff.”
Several local authorities in the region have been equally profligate, despite having seen their funding slashed by a quarter since 2010.
Tiny Hambleton District Council spent almost £1,200 on four first-class trips to London for its then-chief executive, Peter Simpson. Each first-class ticket from Northallerton to Kings Cross cost taxpayers as much as £394 for a return journey.
Mr Simpson was asked to step down in February 2012 in response to what the council termed “serious management issues”. His replacement, Philip Morton, said no staff have travelled first-class since April 2012.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council, meanwhile, said it spent more than £4,100 on 58 first-class rail tickets for staff and councillors.
On each occasion the authority said the tickets had been booked in advance, and so were cheaper than standard open returns – not booked in advance – would have been.
Many were still expensive, such as a £340 one-way trip to London by four unnamed councillors.
Barnsley Council revealed it spent over £1,700 on more than 30 single first-class tickets in 2011/12. Again, all tickets were advance-booked and so came at reduced prices. Nonetheless, one first-class return journey by its chief executive to London cost £183. Another return trip by the chief and their executive officer cost the council £138 per head.
By contrast, some of the region’s largest councils including Leeds and Bradford said they did not spend a penny on first-class travel during 2011/12.
The revelations follow widespread condemnation of the Chancellor, George Osborne, for attempting to travel in a first-class carriage on a journey back to London while carrying only a standard-class ticket.
The Government has made clear it expects public bodies to reduce spending on expensive trips, with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles issuing a 50-point plan to councils on how to cut spending which included a demand they reign in spending on first class travel.
His Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said that while the amounts being spent by some councils on first-class trips are relatively small in the context of their overall budgets, it sends out a damaging message to staff and the wider public alike at a time of widespread redundancies and huge cuts in services.
Last night, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “Extravagant spending on first class travel is unacceptable and sends out the wrong message to the public.
“Every bit of the public sector needs to do its bit to reduce Labour’s deficit and local government should be actively reducing expenditure on first class travel. We, as a department, have cut our expenditure on our first class travel, and councils should do the same.”
The Department for Health (DH) said individual hospitals and trusts should decide how to spend their budgets, but warned that money should be spent “responsibly” at a time when the NHS is struggling to save £5bn.
A DH spokesperson said: “Decisions about staff travel arrangements are for the local NHS. We expect NHS trusts to manage their funds responsibly.”
Barnsley Hospital defended spending £4,067 on first-class rail travel, claiming each instance was justified.
A spokeswoman said: “First class trips are a combination of occasions when the booked in advance fare was less than standard class, and occasions when staff have either had meetings on the train, or needed to travel first class because they are doing work of a highly sensitive and confidential nature.”
Other public bodies in the region which spent money on first-class travel last year included North Yorkshire County Council, York Hospital and Richmondshire Council.
Others – including the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust, Leeds Hospitals Trust, Doncaster Council and Calderdale Council – refused to answer the question claiming it would take too long to search through individual senior staff expenses claims.