COUNCIL chiefs have been criticised for spending more than £100,000 on lobbyists – at the same time as cutting services.
Sunderland City Council paid £102,434.43 to Weber Shandwick, and £10,640.02 to Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, two of London’s leading lobbying firms – which try to influence politicians on behalf of their clients – between March 2010 and August 2011.
Council documents show officers wanted to raise the “profile and influence of the city at Westminster and in Whitehall”.
The papers were drawn-up before the 2010 General Election in anticipation of a Labour defeat, set to leave Sunderland without any MPs from the ruling party.
Sunderland was one of a number of councils found to be spending thousands on lobbyists.
But Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, accused Sunderland and the other councils of wasting taxpayers’ money by hiring lobbyists when they could just talk to ministers directly
He said: “Why these councils feel the need to indulge in vanity lobbying when they could simply pick up the phone is beyond me.
“This is a waste of public cash and undermines public confidence in the political system. These councils owe their voters an apology.”
Mr Pickles introduced a ban on such spending last March, but some councils have sidestepped the ban by claiming they have taken on consultancies for strategic advice and general PR work.
Sunderland Conservatives leader Robert Oliver is also concerned about the cash spent on lobbyists.
He said: “This is yet more evidence of a council that makes cuts to vital budgets whilst spending huge amounts of money on unnecessary expenditure, in this case vanity lobbying, to ‘raise its profile at Westminster’ which could be done by council officers picking up a phone.
“We also have three MPs, three MEPs and 75 councillors who can lobby the Government without charging the taxpayer extra for fat-cat lobbying services and it is all the more galling given the attitude of many in the Labour Party towards the activities of lobbyists.”
Mr Oliver said the council had ignored Mr Pickles’ ban and continued to hire lobbyists who work without a proper register of their activities.
He added: “Cutting jobs, running down leisure centres, slashing the Protecting People budget, and at the same time shelling out cash for lobbying, trips to South Africa, bottled water and trade union salaries will not go down well with the public who are paying for all this.”
Sunderland City Council declined to comment on the issue.