TRAVEL expenses for York councillors have come under fire after it emerged city leaders have taken journeys worth thousands of pounds more than official lists suggested.
The total travel costs for the current members of City of York Council’s Labour cabinet since the group won power in 2011 come to £6,015.92 – while the amount listed for all councillors through the authority’s monthly online updates during 2011/12 and 2012/13 is £943.87.
Opposition parties said it raised questions about the openness of the council in making expenses details publicly available, but council leader James Alexander said the travel was purchased through the authority, rather than directly by councillors themselves as listed monthly, for “essential” meetings.
Responses to questions lodged by Lib Dem councillor Nigel Ayre showed council leader James Alexander has taken journeys outside York costing £2,877.70 since June 2011, while travel costs for Coun Tracey Simpson-Laing, cabinet member for health, housing and adult social services were £1,468.40.
Coun Sonja Crisp took journeys totalling £669.80, and costs for Couns Julie Gunnell, Dave Merrett and David Levene were £482.62, £351.50 and £165.90 respectively.
“The key issue has always been openness, and in 2011 Labour promised to improve transparency and accountability,” said Coun Ayre, describing the current publication of expenses as “a sham”.
“Time and again, cabinet members post expense returns on the council website stating they have claimed nothing, which was clearly not the case. This is taxpayers’ money – they should be able to see when, how and why the money is spent.”
Conservative leader Coun Ian Gillies questioned why cabinet travel expenses were “diverted through other channels”, saying: “This lack of transparency is contrary to the spirit of openness which allows the public to keep track of our expenses.”
Green leader Coun Andy D’Agorne said he believed the travel was due to “promoting York’s interests” but all details should be published.
Coun Alexander said councillors did not pay for these journeys or claim costs back and he tweeted his full travel costs before Christmas, while the information was published in the council’s statement of accounts. He said this system had been in place “for many years” and York needed “a strong voice” at important meetings.
“The opposition should attack me for where and when I fail, not for having the energy to be out there batting and delivering for York, and I am sure my colleagues and I would equally be attacked for not turning up to meetings we are expected to attend,” he said.
The council said travel which is booked directly for councillors by the authority does not appear on the individual lists of members' expenses, but does appear on a monthly transparency report.
A spokeswoman said an Independent Remuneration Panel set up to look at York councillors' expenses had said it was "surprised" to see how "limited" the budget for travel outside the city was, and it felt it was "important that councillors, particularly those holding senior positions, are able to travel to promote the city and identify opportunities the city might be able to grasp". The panel also said it hoped "serious consideration will be given in relation to investment in this important area".