Posted by:28 October, 2011
Another example yesterday of transparency not shedding as much light as it should - and there are lessons for councils and armchair auditors in this cautionary tale.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance has published a report detailing spending on flights by 77 councils in the Midlands over the last two years.
The headline figures flagged up in their press release show 48 councils spent a total of £290,000, with Lincolnshire CC topping the league table after spending £42,000.
The report was also critical of those councils which had paid for business class flights and their report stated: “Modern communications – enabling face to face meetings and conference calls from the office – have rendered many journeys redundant.”
They may have been, but it is difficult to know as the TPA did not ask councils why the flights had been booked and, even when an explanation was offered, it was not included in the report.
So, for the sake of transparency, I did some digging and called the three councils who had scandalously splashed out on non-economy flights.
Starting with the highest spender, a Lincolnshire press officer told me around 80% of the £42,000 flight bill was related to fire and rescue staff travelling to international standards committee and international search and rescue training events.
The latter in particular, the press officer said, “obviously can’t be done over the phone”.
He also said the TPA’s report had alerted Lincolnshire chief executive Tony McArdle to a former employee’s disregard for council guidance not to book business class flights. Procedures have been tightened as a consequence, he said, which just goes to show that even non-contextualised spending data can bring benefits.
Wolverhampton City Council
The city council which spent £7,175 on business class flights to India was robust in its justification: the flights were for a “high-level trade mission” which resulted in a return delegation from India and memorandum of understanding with the Confederation of Indian Industry.
A spokesman said: “Since the chief executive and the head of economic development were meeting in the region of 50 senior industrial and government contacts during a packed programme that started the minute they landed, business class was considered to be a reasonable, value for money option. They were able to work during the flight and carry exhibition and sales materials which might have been added costs should they have opted for economy class.”
She added: “The council sees India as a vital potential market for investment and, indeed, has secured the location of one of the few branches of State Bank of India. Wolverhampton has also recently secured £355m investment with the location of [Indian-owned] Jaguar Land Rover on the i54.”
If I was being particularly facetious I’d argue that, while £7,175 is a lot of money to spend on flights, the 49476% (and counting) return on their investment is pretty fantastic too. But I will argue that it is acceptable, if not highly advisable, for councils to invest in economic growth.
When asked about conducting the meetings over the phone, the spokeswoman cuttingly replied: “Promoting Wolverhampton as a worldwide centre of excellence in the aerospace industries, meeting government officials as well as industrialists, is not the kind of enterprise that could be conducted via Skype.”
According to the TPA’s report, Redditch BC were guilty of booking a £902 return flight to Brussels when Telford & Wrekin were able to book one for around £400.
A spokesman for Redditch said the flights had been to a European procurement summit. Three months later, he said, Redditch and four others had announced joint procurement savings of £357,000 three months after the procurement summit. Again, the cost of the flights is dwarfed by the saving.
Furthermore, the spokesman said: “£500 of the total cost of these two flights was reimbursed by the European Union. We chose these flights because they returned on the same day, to avoid incurring any extra costs to the council.”
However, Redditch neglected to tell the TPA this in their FOI response - and where other councils did flag up where flights were funded by other bodies, it appears in the notes. So council FOI officers should take this as a salutary lesson in providing additional information rather than sticking to the questions.
Last of all I contacted the TPA to ask why they didn’t request some explanation of the spending in their original FOI request. A valid question, particularly as their director Matthew Sinclair spent much of this morning tweeting council press office accounts asking them, for example, “Why would @LincolnshireCC need a business class flight to Tokyo?”
Research director John O’Connell told me the TPA wanted to avoid FOIs becoming so complicated that the request would be refused because the time or financial limit had been breached. “We know it does take a lot of effort to answer them and we want to keep it as simple as possible,” he said.
Mr O’Connell told me some councils did volunteer explanations for the spending and he sent me some examples: Boston BC’s mayor and mayoress were attending Bastille celebrations in twin town Laval; a couple of North East Derbyshire DC councillors were in Germany for the retirement of a local councillor; and young people from Rutland CC were in Ghana and Poland for volunteering and educational trips.
These were not included in the report, he said, because it would be unfair to those who hadn’t done so. “We work very hard to ensure data is comparable,” Mr Connell said.
“If a council feels that every penny they’ve spent is justified, then they have an opportunity to make that case and taxpayers can decide for themselves. But crucially, transparency means that this debate can happen in the first place.”
But Mr O’Connell is in danger of being disingenuous.
Firstly, the TPA report contains comparability problems already – it doesn’t differentiate between size of council for instance – so another one wouldn’t hurt. In addition, the context and explanation could be included in the notes section of the report without prejudicing the main tables. Although Mr O’Connell says this would still be unfair.
But the most important point is this: some of these councils did take the opportunity - in their FOI response - to make their case and offer justification of the spending and the TPA decided not to pass that information on to taxpayers.
This is not only wasting councils time, and therefore taxpayers resources, by requiring them to provide this information a second, third, fourth time in responses to queries from local journalists and residents, but it has also stimulated an uninformed and unintelligent debate because only some of the information has been made available.
From Ruth reports...
Ruth Keeling covers local government’s corporate core including management, finance, human resources, legal and communications.