Scandal: Junketing councillors face surcharge over expenses

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Doncaster councillors and officials who abused their expense allowances and accepted inappropriate gifts and hospitality could face surcharges if the authority does not recover the money from them, the District Auditor said yesterday. Fran Abrams has details of his hard-hitting report.

Four senior figures in Doncaster council were named yesterday as leading figures in the scandal. They are the council's deputy leader, Ray Stockhill; former leader, Peter Welsh; former chief executive, Doug Hale and former finance, director John Smith.

Their seniority and the depth of their involvement justified their identification, he said. Mr Hale resigned after the irregularities were exposed by The Independent, while Mr Welsh and Mr Smith took early retirement.

The district auditor, Bill Butler, said: "In my opinion some members and some officers have failed to exercise proper judgement in accepting hospitality. The members and officers concerned should have been able to distinguish between what was acceptable and what was not." Among the abuses were trips to the Trent Bridge Test, to the races and to a Euro `96 match at Hillsborough.

Members and officers also abused weaknesses in the system controlling expenses and foreign trips. Visits were made, often at club or business class fares, to Doncaster's twin towns in China, France, Poland and the United States. There were also trips to Tokyo, Nice, Kuala Lumpur, Genoa, Singapore, Brussels and Gothenburg.

In particular, Mr Welsh spent four days in Tokyo at a conference at a cost of pounds 5,558. He then went on to meetings in Japan and Hong Kong. Another group paid pounds 9,608 to fly to Wilmington, in the US, when the party would have paid only pounds 3,161 if it had flown economy.

On a sample of 12 foreign trips involving 100 "person nights," pounds 1,060 was spent on drinks from the hotel bar and mini-bars, plus pounds 430 in phone calls and payments for videos and laundry. None was paid for out of a pounds 30-per-day incidental expenses allowance.

An overnight stay in Manchester by one member and three officers ran up a hotel bill totalling pounds 786, including a restaurant bill for pounds 350, of which pounds 139 was for drinks.

Council cars were used to take members and their families to pubs. One councillor used a car on 27 occasions, mostly with his wife, to go to Sheffield. Mr Welsh and Mr Stockhill were also criticised for charging personal mobile phone bills to the authority. Over 15 months Mr Welsh spent pounds 772, pounds 350 of which was in private calls to one number. Mr Stockhill made calls from abroad while on holiday without declaring them.

The report also criticised the council's involvement in Doncaster 2000 Ltd, a joint venture between itself and Keepmoat Holdings Plc, which was of "doubtful legality."

Steps should be taken to recover outstanding money taken in hospitality or gifts, or in unlawful or excessive benefits and expenses. Some money had already been repaid, Mr Butler said. However, if the council did not respond adequately he would consider surcharging the individuals concerned.

Alf Taylor, the council's acting chief executive said the authority would try to recover money owed to it by working with the district auditor and the police, who are still investigating the case. But he would not say how much money would be looked for. "It involves looking at reasonableness and whether there is any level of criminality, consequently we are working very closely with the police.

"Doncaster council, its officers and its members, have faced the closest scrutiny in its history, but through the work already carried out and the further issues raised which we will tackle in the future the authority is determined to ensure it follows and establishes best practice in local government," he said.