Blair hit by Old Labour junketing

Party leadership to take action after criticism of Doncaster councillor s' foreign trips
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A council run by a tightly knit group of Labour politicians, two of whom are front-runners for a rock-solid Labour seat in the Commons, has been strongly criticised by the District Auditor over junkets, expenses, and "inappropriate" gifts and hospitality.

The criticisms are an embarrassment to Tony Blair because they dent New Labour's image and resurrect the spectre of old-fashioned town hall politics which the Labour leader is desperate to shed. The Labour leadership said last night it would take action following the criticisms.

Councillors on Doncaster council, where Labour has an overwhelming majority, went on trips around the world, including to Japan, Hong Kong, China, Sweden, Poland and the United States, without formal authority and no public records of the trips were kept by the council.

According to the District Auditor, the accountant who audits the council's accounts, councillors on some trips flew club class, breaching council rules. They went on drunken binges running up staggering bills, with one meal for two costing pounds 284 and "working" lunches at pounds 50 per head where most of the bill was for alcohol.

At a meeting last month of leading officers and councillors, the District Auditor, Gordon Sutton, said: "The level of alcohol consumed at these lunches makes it unlikely that those attending them could do any work in the afternoon, let alone stand up." Councillors and officials accepted "inappropriate" hospitality including raffle tickets where the prize was a trip for two to the Kentucky Derby.

The revelations will cause widespread alarm at Labour Party headquarters, which only last week pub- lished a document stressing the virtues of the party's local government stewardship. It is particularly embarrassing because the selection process for the vacant Don Valley seat, caused by the death of Labour MP, Martin Redmond, has begun.

The Labour leadership said last night it was preparing to act on the scandal. A spokeswoman said: "We will be urgently seeking a copy of the District Auditor's report and will not hesitate to take any action required."

Two councillors and front-runners for the nomination - the council leader, Peter Welsh, and Labour group chairman, Tony Sellars, lead a small group of Labour councillors which acts as an inner caucus running the council.

Tory Central Office, which will do its utmost to exploit Labour's embar- rassment, has known of events in Doncaster for some time but had hoped to keep a lid on them until the election campaign. The Tories will also find it harder to attack Labour's record on local government since the amounts of money involved in Doncaster pale into insignificance compared with the pounds 20m surcharge imposed on councillors and officers in Tory-controlled Westminster.

Mr Welsh went to Japan in December, where he visited a racecourse. Mr Sellars, who on Sunday night won the nomination from the ward to select its candidate for Don Valley, went on four trips - to China, Poland, Sweden and Jersey. Mr Sellars accepted yesterday he had been on a twinning trip to the Chinese town of Dandong, travelling business class, but could not recollect whether he had been on the other trips. He said: "I will have to look at my diary. We have a system of authorisation by officers. Maybe we rely on officers too much."

The District Auditor told last month's meeting of senior officers and councillors that there was a "lack of control" over the foreign visits, that the rules were "ambiguous and open to interpretation", and there was "abuse of the system".

Although the chief executive, Doug Hale, had authority to sanction trips, sometimes this had not been sought. Mr Sutton said: "Foreign trips had taken place without authority from the chief executive or members." Some council members had travelled club or business class, whereas council rules specified economy. Mr Sutton also questioned the payment of pounds 30 per day subsistence allowances to councillors for "incidental" expenses when, in fact, council credit cards issued to them were already used to pay for mini bars, telephone bills and videos. A source at the District Auditor's office said: "There is evidence that over-claiming has occurred."

A council policy and resources committee voted last week to withdraw all but six of the 27 council credit cards which had been issued to councillors and senior officers. It also voted to scrap foreign trips, saving an estimated pounds 115,000 per year and the pounds 12,000-a-year Jaguar, leased to council leaders is to be returned.

Doncaster owns the local racecourse at which the free bar for members of the racecourse committee and the custom of a free drink for any other councillor also came under criticism from Mr Sutton. The overall cost came out of a special budget which the council said amounted to less than pounds 200,000.