World trips, free lunches, outings to the races - an everyday tale of Labour councillors

Doncaster council was run with a culture of arrogance and profligacy. Christian Wolmar reports
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The Independent Online
A culture of profligacy borne of arrogance and an unassailable electoral position has grown up inside the council which runs the northern industrial town of Doncaster, according to many former councillors and officials interviewed by The Independent.

Labour has been increasing its electoral dominance, like elsewhere in local government, so that the party now holds all but five of the 63 seats on the council, making effective opposition difficult. And within the Labour group, an inner caucus created in 1981, called the Mining Community Group, a name left over from the days when a majority of the councillors were miners, dominates proceedings and makes all the key decisions in private before getting endorsement from the rest of the Labour group.

The District Auditor, Gordon Sutton, who is responsible for auditing the council's accounts, said at a meeting with leading councillors and officials that in the council there "was a culture that has grown and needs to be looked at".

It was, as one council officer put it, "the arrogance of power" which led to the free-loading. One councillor told another recently elected colleague: "You decide where you want to go and you find a reason why you need to go there."

The Labour leader, Peter Welsh, 42, is a former miner described in the Doncaster Star as "a bit of a lad" and has attracted notoriety twice recently. He hit the local headlines a year ago when he was pictured in the Doncaster Star at the racecourse with a woman on his lap. Nothing remarkable in that as both are single, except that she happened to be a local Conservative councillor, Kate Bannard, and the two have gone on to develop what is described in the paper as a "romantic attachment".

Mr Welsh also attracted criticism when, at the St Leger's dinner at the racecourse in September 1995, he was reported in the Racing Post to have jeered Lord Wakeham, the Conservative peer who is also chairman of the Betting Levy Board.

The racecourse, owned and operated by the council, is at the centre of many of the allegations of excesses as many of the trips abroad were to visit racecourses to develop expertise in running the Doncaster course.

Furthermore, every race day at Doncaster is a free lunch and bar for the racecourse committee, and a free drink and race tickets for every other councillor. The free bar has now been scrapped following the auditor's criticism.

The relationship with Doncaster 2000 is also the subject of concern and will be investigated further by the auditor. The venture was set up by the council as a partnership between itself and a local developer and builder called Keepmoat.

Under a contract which is now being scrutinised for its legality by the auditor, the developer gets first call on all surplus council land and shares the profits with the council.

In his report, Mr Sutton criticised the fact that councillors received hospitality which he said was "inappropriate because of its source".

He said councillors and officers attending race meetings found free raffle tickets on their seats and the prizes included an all-expenses paid trip for two to the Kentucky Derby.

Another reason given for councillors' trips abroad has been twinning with foreign towns. Doncaster has no less than five twin towns - Wilmington, North Carolina, Avion in Northern France, Herten in Germany, Dandong in China and Gliwice in Poland. According to council rules the journeys were supposed to be undertaken in economy class, but Mr Sutton found that some trips were taken in business or club class.

According to council minutes, air travel on higher rate fares, such as business or club, amounted to pounds 20,581 in 1994/5 for councillors, and pounds 15,461 for officers. Mr Welsh, the council leader, speaking at a meeting of the council's policy and resources committee, sought to justify the high travel costs by saying that club and business tickets were more flexible than cheaper tickets.

In fact, club and business classes are much more expensive than full economy, which is also fully transferable.

The Conservative opposition leader, John Dainty, has on several occasions attempted to get information about the purpose of the trips and a full list of those on them but has been unable to do so.

He said: "There has been no committee approval of these trips and no reports about what happened on them."

When The Independent approached Tony Sellars, chairman of the Labour group, to ask him which council trips he had been on recently, he agreed that he had been to China. Whenasked if he had been to Poland he said: "I can't comment on that."

Had he been to Sweden? "I've no idea, I can't remember." Had he been to Jersey? "I can't remember," he replied.

And had he been to Japan? "No, not to Japan."

He said he would consult his diary and return the call to The Independent, but he did not do so.