The Conservative leader of Britain’s largest council faces being reported to the standards watchdog for spending thousands of pounds of public funds on a hotel suite at the Tory Party’s annual conference – even though he lives just a few miles away.
Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham Council spent more than £2,000 of taxpayers’ money on a four night’s accommodation at one of the city’s most expensive hotels during last year’s conference in the city as well as £600 on entertainment.
He has claimed that he took the suite Hyatt because the Conservatives were in Government and was representing the council to ministers.
However it has subsequently emerged that the council also paid £3,750 for Mr Whitby's five-night stay at the Conservative conference in 2008 when they were not in power. In the same year he did not attend the Labour’s conference in the City which was attended by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The disclosure is embarrassing to the Government because Birmingham is run by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government secretary, has made much of Labour controlled councils’ profligacy.
It also comes in the midst of dramatic cuts to staff and services. Last year Birmingham City Council announced that over 2,000 council jobs were to go in an attempt to save £75 million.
But such austerity measures appear not to have applied to Mr Whitby.
A series of emails, given to The Independent, reveal that his office went ahead with the Hyatt booking for last October’s party conference despite concerns from Birmingham City’s own chief executive.
Stephen Hughes told Mr Whiby’s aide Andrew Dunbar that it was “not what he had in mind” when he was told of plans to spend £280 a night on an Executive Twin Suite.
He told Mr Dunbar that the invoice should be paid by Marketing Birmingham – a part privately funded body which promotes the City.
However when Marketing Birmingham refused to pay the bill because they were “not comfortable with the arrangement” Mr Hughes appears to have agreed that the council should fund the rooms.
Mr Whitby’s home is just a few miles away from the Hyatt and as leader of the council he has use of a chauffeur-driven car.
Last night the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak Steve McCabe said he was reporting Mr Whitby to the council regulator Standards for England. He has also raised the matter in Parliament.
“I think these bills raise a series of questions to which we have not yet received a satisfactory answer and that is why I will be raising this with the commissioner for standards,” he said.
“When we first found out about Mr Whitby’s Hyatt stay in 2010 he claimed it was because the Conservatives were in Government. But it now appears that he also stayed there during 2008 when they were in opposition.
“I have the bills from that stay and it shows he spent over £500 on food and drink. Now I’m not an expenses puritan but that would seem like quite a lot to me.”
The Labour leader of the opposition in Birmingham Albert Bore, who got hold of the email correspondence after a Freedom of Information request, said he was troubled by its contents.
“Throughout my 30 years as a Councillor, Leader of the Council and Leader of the Labour Group, I have attended many Labour Party Conferences - including in Birmingham – and have engaged in discussions with Shadow Cabinet Ministers and Government Ministers on matters of concern to Birmingham and Birmingham City Council.
“On all these occasions, I attended often in an ex-officio capacity and as a member of the Labour Party and paid myself for my delegation, travel, hotel and refreshment expenses, even when these conferences were in Birmingham.
“This is not the case with Mr Whitby and we have yet to have a satisfactory explanation as to why he and council officials deemed this to be acceptable expenditure.”
A spokesperson for Mr Whitby said it was important for him to be at the conference hotel: "For four days we had the majority of the elected government in Birmingham, the biggest showcase the city has this year. Because of the time taken to enter the security zone we elected to have some meeting space in the Hyatt for four days.
"The Leader's working day starts at 7am and ends towards midnight. In addition we are offered meetings with senior cabinet members at short notice and we need to be able to respond to these oppertunities and help shape policy for the future benefit of Birmingham".
A spokesperson claimed that the cost of the 2010 conference had been substantially offset by several “revenue generating fringe events” which took place during the course of the conference meaning the net cost of the room was only £300.
However Labour pointed out that if they had not hired the suite for Mr Whitby the council would have made an £1,800 profit.