Essex County Council members get free Blackberry phones
EXPENSIVE mobile phones incapable of being used to make or receive calls are being given free of charge to politicians at Essex County Council – with the taxpayer footing the bill.
The Gazette has learned that 61 of the 75 elected members at County Hall have a complimentary BlackBerry, worth £275 each in some cases, to allow them to send and receive e-mails.
Meanwhile, 15 county councillors, including leader Peter Martin, have availed themselves of laptops – all funded from the public purse.
The authority forked out £825 to buy three BlackBerry devices in 2011/12 alone, but said it could not tell us how much it had spent in previous years as they had been provided by its "strategic partner" BT.
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However, assuming each BlackBerry was worth £275, the cost of providing 61 could be as high as £16,775.
Previous Gazette investigations have revealed that the council has splashed at least £58,608 of taxpayers' money since April 2007 on overseas trips for councillors and £192,613 in four years to give them free lunch at County Hall – not to mention £181,965 on refreshments, alcohol and soirees over a five-year period.
Some 74 per cent of council tax paid by residents goes to the county council.
Pressure group The TaxPayers' Alliance said: "Essex County Council needs to ensure value for money. Not every councillor will need the latest smartphone – some might have their own.
"Expensive kit should only be issued when members have a real need for it in their role as a councillor."
Liberal Democrat member David Kendall, who represents Brentwood South, has a council-issued BlackBerry.
He told the Gazette: "You can't make or receive calls, you can simply send and receive e-mails.
"I personally have no problem with councillors having a BlackBerry for e-mails but I would not support them being used as a mobile phone."
Mr Kendall added that the annual allowance received by county councillors (£11,500) was granted, among other things, to cover the cost of calls from members' private phones.
County councillor John Roberts, who represents Hutton, no longer speaks to the Gazette following our revelations about how much the authority spent on free food and alcohol.
However, in a letter to the editor last month, he wrote: "Some of us have [a BlackBerry] or some other device which allows the council to get in touch with us quickly regarding traffic accidents, flooding, etc. We are forbidden, however, to use the devices for personal use and I can confirm I never have."
The Gazette asked for a comment from both council leader Peter Martin and Brentwood Rural member Ann Naylor.
Neither would comment, however a council spokesman said: "Mobile devices such as BlackBerries and laptops are commonly used to enable people to keep in touch throughout the day.
"BlackBerries enable councillors to be open and accessible and to receive e-mails 24/7, rather than requiring them to attend County Hall to check queries from constituents (sic). This enables them to perform their duties more efficiently and effectively.
"It is important that Essex County Council remains firmly rooted in the 21st century with its technology, all purchased using robust policies with sign-off from heads of finance to ensure money is spent correctly."
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