Councillors vote to scrap free Sunderland Empire tickets after bitter row
A political row over complimentary Empire Theatre tickets for councillors has finally ended after city leaders agreed to scrap the arrangement.
The Empire is owned by Sunderland City Council but operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG).
Under the current contract, a small number of tickets are offered to councillors for shows running more than five consecutive performances.
Labour said the scheme allowed councillors to provide feedback on shows and engage with residents, with tickets also distributed to looked after children and care homes for certain performances.
They added no tickets have been accepted by councillors since June 2019.
At a full council meeting on January 29, councillors agreed to continue declining tickets until the end of the current ATG contract and to remove complimentary tickets from any future agreement.
Tickets are normally provided by ATG to the council before being offered to all political groups through the leader’s office.
A row over the agreement originally broke out in May 2019 when newly elected opposition councillor, Heather Fagan, was angered by an offer of free tickets, which she felt councillors should not receive.
At this week’s council meeting, the Lib Dem group tabled a motion calling for tickets for councillors to be scrapped, stating it “impacted on the reputation of elected members.”
Coun Martin Haswell noted Empire Theatre’s role as a tourist attraction and praised its work with community groups across the city.
In a speech on the motion, he singled out some councillors from the Labour and Conservative groups who had accepted tickets in recent years.
The figures came from a Freedom of Information Request, which listed complimentary tickets claimed between May 2017 and June 2019.
Several councillors hit back at the Lib Dems, stating their campaigning would impact vulnerable children and community groups benefiting from the tickets.
Labour’s Phil Tye said: “I don’t know how they dare point the finger at Labour and Conservatives when Liberal councillors who served this city have got these free tickets, that’s the complete madness of it.”
Council leader, Graeme Miller, also described the motion as an attempt to “smear” councillors.
“It does surprise me that with all the austerity issues facing this council after ten years of coalition and Conservative misrule that this is the issue that the Liberal Democrats think is so important,” he said.
“Not child poverty, not rising use of food banks, not the social ills that come with uncaring government.
“This is an attempt to smear both the Conservatives and the Labour councillors in this chamber by pointing out that they have been offered complimentary tickets at no cost to the council, there’s never been a cost to anyone, and that’s somehow a bad thing.
“[Lib Dems] are bereft of any positivity themselves, in all the time they have been in this chamber I have never heard any of them say one good thing about this council or anything it’s done.”
Councillor gave £300 to charity over tickets issue
Coun Miller said Councillor Paula Hunt receives tickets as part of her “due diligence duties” as a member of the Empire Theatre Trust.
But the meeting heard the councillor felt “so uncomfortable” about taking the tickets she donated £300 to charity in lieu.
Cabinet member for communities and culture, Coun John Kelly, added tickets for children’s performances were offered to looked after children “first and foremost.”
During debate, several opposition councillors also criticised the motion.
UKIP’s Steven Bewick said a condition should be added where councillors make voluntary donations to the Mayor’s fund if they accept any type of complimentary ticket.
Conservative councillor, Bob Francis added:“We’re on a race to the bottom and that race is led by the Liberal Democrats.
“If they really want to make a difference, let them forego all of their allowances in total or better still resign en masse.”
Coun Haswell, responding, said the Lib Dem motion aimed to scrap complimentary tickets for councillors only and that tickets for community groups should be preserved through the theatre trust.
“Yes there’s voluntary, engagement and community groups and that’s all well and good but when there are such large numbers of tickets being taken [by councillors] it smacks of something very different,” he said.
Following debate, an amended motion from the Labour group was passed by a majority vote.
Council leader, Graeme Miller, speaking on the motion, added: “I think the chamber should vote this amendment through.
“Unfortunately, there will be no more complimentary tickets for anyone ever or certainly as long as I’m the leader of the council because of the position this ridiculous group down there has put us in.”
The amended motion reads:
The Empire Theatre is a key council owned attraction in Sunderland holding a unique position in the North East cultural scene.
In recent years the Empire Theatre, under the management of ATG, has hosted some of the best stage shows usually reserved for the West End and other major venues.
The Sunderland Empire also attracts wide praise for its engagement in the community and efforts to work with groups across Sunderland, Washington, Houghton and Hetton.
This council notes that:
Residents across the city have expressed dismay of the practice of complimentaryEmpire Theatre tickets being provided to the council. Councillors accept that complimentary tickets impact upon the reputation of elected representatives amongst the residents of the city. Existing contractual terms between Sunderland City Council and ATG include the provision of complimentary tickets. No complimentary Empire Theatre tickets have been supplied to the council’s elected members since June 2019
This council therefore resolves to:
Continue to respectfully decline complimentary Empire Theatre tickets until the end of the current term of the contract with ATG. Ensure that within any future contract for private business to run the Empire Theatre, complimentary tickets issued to the council will not be part of that agreement.