Let them eat cake?

This week we revealed Dover District Council spends thousands of pounds every year on catering, including £220 a time on buffets for councillors before meetings.

The details of the spending, obtained by the Express under Freedom of Information laws, were exposed shortly after our report detailing council expenditure on providing bottled and filtered water for its staff.

In both cases the amounts of money involved are admittedly small when stood alongside the authority’s budget as a whole. This has led some members of the online community to brand our report as, variously, a “sad silly season story” and “cheap journalism”. It seems a lot of people are quite happy for councillors to be fed and watered at the expense of the man in the street, even at a time when the public sector is facing deep and painful cuts.

At the weekend I was talking with a district council employee whose job could be at risk later in the year as posts are cut in a bid to balance the budget.

She has been with the council for a few years and is, I can only assume, on a relatively meagre salary – my guess would be somewhere in the region of £12-14,000.

Perhaps if she’s sacked in the coming months those dismissing our story could try telling her, while she’s queuing at the job centre, that the amount spent on drinking water and buffets is “inconsequential”, as one observer described it?

The point of these stories is not that the amount of money in question is shockingly high, it is that it’s being spent at all.

Why, when public sector workers across the country are facing the threat of redundancy and the public are facing cuts to services, should councillors and officers be provided with food and drink at taxpayers’ expense?

The council will tell you it’s because when they have to attend a meeting at 6pm they have no time to go home and eat beforehand. This is a ridiculous argument. What’s to stop them packing a ham sandwich and an apple to eat before the meeting starts? Nothing.

Public sector bosses have been quick to warn us about impending budget cuts while at the same time insisting front line services will be protected, but how can they look the public in the eye when this kind of spending is still happening?

The only test accountants in organisations such as DDC should be applying is this: does the spending in question directly benefit the people they serve, those who pay their council tax and elect their members? Any expenditure which fails this simple test should go – immediately.

As I argued in a previous blog post: “Unnecessary and frivolous spending must take the first hit, putting off more damaging cuts to front line services and jobs until there is absolutely nothing else left to axe.”

Feel free to dismiss council spending on bottled water and buffets as inconsequential if you like. But let’s not be mistaken, these are outgoings which could be cut with no adverse impact on taxpayers.

That makes them, at a time when DDC is slashing its budget and workers are facing the prospect of the dole queue, both unnecesary and wrong.

UPDATE: This came in from DDC before the bank holiday weekend in relation to members’ allowances.

A council spokesman said: “The basic allowance is £4,223 per annum, which is the second lowest in east Kent. On top of that councillors are entitled to claim a maximum of one special responsibility allowance if they hold a position entitling them to one, such as chairman of a committee, travel and subsistence allowance for approved duties only, and the dependants’ carers’ allowance where this applies.”

So councillors are awarded a “basic” allowance of slightly more than £80 per week. Is there a good reason why they can’t use this cash to buy something to eat before meetings?


4 thoughts on “Let them eat cake?

  1. Congratulations on this report . I could never understand how come the majority of society on low incomes had to take a packed lunch and a flask to work, yet councillors and charities waste so much on all these luxury buffets.

    Here in Deal we learned that a local charity lost a £500 donation because the charity failed to put on a cream tea and the benefactor therefore refused to donate to them. (that benefactor should be named and shamed) It’s time people got life into perspective. Eat your own food and let the money be spent where it is needed – on local services and charity. Many people are happy to give to charity, but many hate the fact that their money feeds already fat cats who already have enough cream of their own!

  2. Thanks Chrissi. Most of us make a sandwich in the morning to take to work, and if we’re going to work late we either take another sandwich or nip out and buy something later on.
    I can’t see any good reason why councillors shouldn’t have to do the same, after all they do recieve an allowance to help with the costs of their work.

  3. In all honesty, do you really – I mean really – think this is a good story? I mean seriously, it’s not a big deal is it. Is it a story that would interest you as a reader, I think not…

    I’m not a councillor, I don’t know anyone at the council and I don’t even live in Kent, so I’m not an interested party in any way. But I if my local paper “exposed” that the council was spending cash on buffets I’d have to laugh.

    I mean, all you did was put in an FOI request – it’s not exactly a hard-hitting investigation.

    For a start, I know councillors have buffets already. As does anyone who knows anything about councils.

    Secondly, most reasonable people would be perfectly happy for their councillors to have a buffet. After all, I don’t want them being hungry when they make decisions that might affect me.

    Thirdly, they’re councillors, I think they deserve a bit of respect and pampering. Not too much, but a bit because they’re going out of their way to try and sort out where I live.

    And fourthly, we’re not exactly talking snouts in the trough here, are we? In council terms it’s a drop in the ocean, they’ve done nothing wrong and the money isn’t going to make much of a difference elsewhere.

    Basically, if you want to “reveal” something, reveal something worth revealing.

  4. @Ivor, obviously I do think this is an interesting story, otherwise I wouldn’t have written it.
    Firstly, I’m sure there are many people who don’t know much about local government, let alone the fact the councillors they pay for are fed and watered at their expense.
    Secondly, not everyone is happy for councillors to tuck into a buffet before meetings. If they are hungry they should use their allowance to pay for something to eat.
    Thirdly, respect? Sometimes. Pampering? Not so sure.
    Fourthly, it may be a drop in the ocean, but I believe any unnecessary spending, however small, should be cut from public sector budgets.
    I appreciate you feel differently, but I might respect your opinion a little more if it didn’t appear to have been submitted from a KM Group computer under a false name.

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