Taxpayers' pressure group demands answers over council spending
THE news that Essex County Council officers are using taxpayer-funded P-cards to buy fast food, groceries, cosmetics, souvenirs, cinema tickets, clothing, chocolate and alcohol, among other items, has sparked calls for greater transparency.
Pressure group The TaxPayers' Alliance, which campaigns for a low tax society, believes the council should justify all expenses it incurs.
Campaign manager Robert Oxley said: "Taxpayers will be left gobsmacked that their money has been spent on the council living it up at night clubs plus stays at five star hotels, shoe shining and even hat cleaning.
"Residents will be left wondering why they are picking up bills totalling tens of thousands of pounds at country clubs, florists, bakeries and record shops.
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"The receipts suggest officers at Essex County Council have been enjoying the high life at taxpayers' expense."
He added: "These cards can be an efficient way of paying necessary bills, but there must be transparency to prevent inappropriate use and save taxpayers' money.
"Council staff must justify their expenses when they use the cards and itemised bills should be published automatically so that taxpayers can scrutinise exactly how their money is spent."
He added: "Ess- ex County Council must demonstrate that it has taken on board the serious concerns raised in the 2009 Audit Commission report about how it controls procurement card use.
"The council needs to get its house in order and with many examples of wasteful spending having been exposed in recent months, urgent steps are needed to convince residents it can still be trusted."
As the coalition's local government secretary, Brentwood and Ongar MP Eric Pickles has been vocal in his expectation that councils should be both transparent and prudent with how they spend public money.
Indeed, spend on P-cards in his own Government department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, decreased from £341,698 in 2010/11 to £109,496 in 2011/12.
Furthermore, the number of civil servants who hold these cards in his department has fallen from 210 to 33.
Mr Pickles told the Gazette: "People at Essex County Council need to realise that it isn't Essex's money, it isn't the Government's money, it is the public's money and the public have a right to know how it is being spent."
Mr Pickles called on the council to publish all its P-card transactions online, saying: "If they do that, you are not likely to get money spent on cosmetics and McDonald's."
The minister added: "I am sure Essex will now look carefully at the number of people holding these cards because it strikes me as being excessive."
Liberal Democrat county councillor David Kendall, who represents Brentwood South, said he would be calling for an independent inquiry.
"There needs to be an investigation into a number of specific claims that have been made," he said.
"It is very important to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.
"Some people have got some serious explaining to do."
He added: "This story won't be popular at County Hall but I commend the Gazette for uncovering this information.
"I am looking forward to hearing the council's response."
Fellow Lib Dem member Barry Aspinell, elected in Brentwood North, added: "This is excessive and it needs a thorough investigation."
Brentwood Borough Council does not use P-cards.
Its leader Louise McKinlay said: "Taxpayers' money must always be spent wisely to ensure need and the best value for money."
Meanwhile, Brentwood Conservative borough councillor Russell Quirk, who plans to run for County Hall when its members are up for election next year, said: "I worry sincerely that the powers that be at Essex have lost control of the taxpayer funds that they are entrusted to preside over."