Sunderland Lib Dems call for ‘end to free meals for councillors’

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A bid to scrap free meals for councillors will be made this week by Sunderland’s Liberal Democrat and Others group.

Currently, all councillors and their guests can gets a free buffet after full council meetings at a public cost of £5,000 per year.

On Wednesday, Lib Dems in the city will launch a motion on the issue as Sunderland City Council braces itself for three years of deep budget cuts.

Council bosses have defended the long-running policy, which they claim caters for councillors in full-time work.

But the Liberal Democrat and Others group leader, Niall Hodson, says it “sends out a terrible message about their priorities”.

He said: “It is disgusting that Sunderland City Council continues to cut services for residents, but won’t cut their own buffet, which continues to be paid for by taxpayers.

“We want to see the free meals for councillors come to an end this year.

“There is nothing stopping Labour and Conservative councillors taking a packed tea, or eating before or after the meeting – that’s what Lib Dems do.”

The motion also calls for the council to bin subsistence expenses claims for meals in cases other than an overnight stay.

Sunderland City Council’s Labour leader, Coun Graeme Miller, described the opposition move as an “obsession”.

He said: “Continually obsessing over catering at five meetings a year clearly shows that they have their priorities wrong.”

“Full council starts at 6pm and can go on for several hours as the agenda can be substantial.

“The last full meeting on Wednesday, November 19, lasted for nearly four-and-a-half-hours and finished just before 10.30pm.

“For the councillors of all parties who are in full-time employment and come straight from work this can mean they are going nine hours without a meal, this is not fair on them.”

He added: “The council supplying a meal is more cost-effective than councillors claiming subsistence for food after the meeting and is a long-standing arrangement.”

Coun Miller added more than £290 million has been removed from Sunderland City Council’s budget as a “direct result of austerity” - launched in 2010 under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government.

He accused Lib Dem councillors of using free meals as a “political weapon” to “distract attention away from their abysmal record in Sunderland and government.”

Under current rules, councillors can claim meals if they’re absent from their “usual place of residence” for more than four hours in cases not involving an overnight stay.

Subsistence allowances include:

Breakfast: £6.22

Lunch: £8.55

Tea: £3.37

Evening Meal: £10.59

The motion will be debated and put to a vote at Sunderland full council on Wednesday, January 30.

The meeting starts at 6pm at Sunderland Civic Centre.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service