Doncaster council bans foreign conference trips

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The beleaguered ruling Labour group on Doncaster Council voted yesterday to ban foreign trips to attend conferences.

But the Doncaster councillors cannot quite see what the fuss is about, despite the recent critical District Auditor's report into their activities, and they will still be allowed to travel abroad for twinning visits and for efforts in trying to attract inward investment.

At yesterday's meeting the council leadership suggested that the recent controversy was all a plot by the Tory-dominated media, even though it was the criticism of the District Auditor over business class flights to China, Japan and Hong Kong and drunken working lunches at pounds 50-a-head which first drew attention to what is now called "Donnygate".

The decision to curtail foreign trips came as Labour's National Executive Committee was deciding on the shortlist for the local Don Valley seat left vacant by the death of the Labour MP Martin Redmond. The NEC was expected to rule out most leading Doncaster councils because of the affair, even though one - Tony Sellars, chairman of the Labour group - received the highest number of local ward nominations.

Doncaster's councillors are not used to any attention from the media, let alone scrutiny. There are 58 Labour councillors and only three Tories and two Liberal Democrats to provide any semblance of opposition and questioning of council decisions. The council meetings, unlike in most other authorities, are held in early afternoon and the Mayor, Dorothy Layton, conducts the business so briskly with lots of references to the red book - not Mao but the standing orders - that meetings rarely take more than an hour.

Yesterday, Ron Gillies, the long-standing chairman of the Racecourse Committee, said he had drawn "the short straw" because most of the leading councillors were away in London for the shortlisting, leaving him to face the music over "Donnygate".

Mr Gillies outlined the new controls on foreign trips. He was quick to say that the District Auditor was not against the "principle of foreign trips," but he was worried about the way they had been sanctioned. While many are beneficial in attracting help from Europe and inward investment, Mr Gillies said all trips would be submitted to a council committee for approval in future.

The Tory councillors' attempts to make a few political points were rather ruined when their leader, John Dainty, admitted he had gone on a council trip to Wilmington, Delaware, to look at social services, and hastily added: "But we travelled economy class."