The District Council's press release declared: "Audit report gives councillors' expenses clean bill of health."
Photo: Members post at Ebley Mill
All this was against a background of outrage over the MPs' expenses scandal and concern over how district councillors were reimbursed for costs incurred whilst on council business. I, like the majority of councillors voted for the the Audit Committee to instigate a thorough investigation of all councillors' expenses for 2008/9. It made a check on every claim made by every councillor as a way of reassuring the public that they could be confident in the council and its councillors.
Well the report was out and it led to a bit of a fuss at the Audit Committee meeting - not because of what it revealed but what some councillors thought it should have done. Indeed some wanted further investigation into other months of expenses - but I personally think that this report has demonstrated the changes needed and the very huge costs in further investigation can hardly be justified - unless of course those councillors have evidence of something that they know about? If so then they should speak up. This whole issue is becoming a distraction to very much more important work that needs to be done.
This Audit report has demonstrated flaws in how expenses are claimed but they are mostly very minor - it is right that procedures are tightened and I welcome the moves. As the report said the system needs streamlining and simplifying - already some of those measures are in place. I also note that another Council committee I sit on, the Members Development group has been working on cuts to IT expenses - more of that very soon but we are looking to make quite significant savings in coming years.
I should also note that many councillors do not claim their full expenses - indeed I have not claimed all my mileage and indeed campaigned for the mileage fee to be reduced from up to 58.7p per mile to 25p - Greens would like to see the 25p a mandatory fee and I currently calculate mileage for that rate and then don't claim for other meetings (see here). I have, like other councillors I've spoken to, also forgotten or missed other claims due to time limits on when you can claim.
Furthermore I question some of the hospitality claims - these are very rare for the average councillor - indeed I can only think of one occasion relating to myself - a meal at The Vine Tree when we welcomed the Aussie Randwick Mayor over here on official visit. In fact I made sure I paid for the meal in full afterwards. While others might have to be there, my presence was not essential! Great fun but not something that public money should pay for!
I had instilled into me about trying to get all that stuff right when I was young - in one of my first jobs as a waiter my Dad had me total up all the tips I received and pay tax on them. It was a good lesson in getting it right!
Anyway the Audit report identified anonymously councillors that made errors. I was disconcerted to get a phone call to say I am Councillor number 36 in the report and it was suggested I claimed £8.22 in error by putting a mileage claim in twice. Mistakes are possible - we are all human - on looking into it, it transpires that the Council made the mistake and put the claim through twice themselves rather than me. Interestingly it was me that then identified another small double payment that was made. I will of course pay back any money sent to me in error.
Overpayments of any expenses are unacceptable, but the audit has shown that the expense system is not being abused. The report identified that a total of £1,347.24 in expense claims was overpaid over the full financial year from the total budget of just over £450,000. Less than £114 of the overpayments were attributed to mistakes by councillors. The remainder can be put down to administrative errors and shortcomings in some of the Council's processes. Of that £1,200 attributed to administrative errors and process shortcomings, £1,068.00 was due to a number of councillors receiving payments for broadband, which was also paid for directly to the broadband supplier by the council. Internal procedures have already been changed to prevent this happening again.
The council is also looking to implement a new scheme for publicising its members' expenses. In a few months' time, councillors' expenses will be uploaded to the council's website on a monthly basis so that anyone wishing to scrutinise them can do so without having to request the information.
Here is what Councillor Frances Roden, leader of Stroud District Council, said to the press: "The new system will provide greater transparency in the way in which councillors' allowances and expenses are administered. District councillors, unlike MPs, are not salaried and do not have generous expense accounts. Councillors from all parties receive an allowance and are able to claim reimbursements for expenses such as travel, subsistence and overnight accommodation. It is important to emphasise that these are reimbursements for costs incurred on council work, and not an additional perk. Regrettably all politicians have been tarred with the same brush as MPs, but I feel sure that the results of this thorough audit will give everyone confidence in all of their Stroud District councillors."
On a final note Greens were ranked top in terms of transparency in Europe - see here - we are also fortunate to have an MP locally who came out very well in the MP expense scandals. What we need is systems in place that allow for openness and transparency. I am confident Stroud is moving in the right direction.