Sunderland councillor invites public to sample food at meetings after costs row

Sunderland Civic CentreSunderland Civic Centre
Sunderland Civic Centre
A city Conservative has called on Wearsiders to come and sample food provided for elected councillors for themselves as a row over spending rumbles on.

The Echo reported earlier this month how Liberal Democrat councillor Niall Hodson has called for the scrapping of a buffet for 75 elected officials following each of the nine full Sunderland City Council meetings each year.

A Freedom of Information request revealed that on average, the refreshments, which are provided by an outside catering company, cost £546 per meeting.

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The story provoked a huge reaction from readers, with many saying at a time of austerity the buffet should not be provided, with others arguing the cost is minimal in terms of the overall council budget.

Coun Hodson, who says he does not partake of any food or drink provided, is calling for an end to the arrangement at a time when the authority faces cuts of £110million by 2020, which follows on from the £207million cuts from its budget during the six years leading up to last autumn.

Now, leader of Sunderland’s Conservative party group, Coun Peter Wood, says that members of the public can come along themselves to view the next meeting and then enjoy some of the food and drink served up afterwards.

He argues that because of the time spent at the meetings, which often go on for several hours, it could be more cost-effective for councillors to be provided with buffet food rather than claim it back on expenses. “Council taxpayers interested in the city’s affairs should come themselves to council meetings and join their elected representatives in a meal afterwards,” said Coun Wood.

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“The food after council meetings is not just for councillors. Council officers and those members of the public in the public gallery for the meeting also join councillors for a meal.

Councillors are entitled to a modest subsistence allowance if council business keeps them away from home for more than a certain time.

“It may be that providing a meal after full council meetings helps to keep those claims in check.

“I would urge anyone interested to come along to the next council meeting - at 6pm on Wednesday, September 21 in the council chamber - and to partake of the food afterwards.

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“The meeting will probably last a couple of hours and they can then make up their own minds.

“I would certainly be interested in hearing from them afterwards.”

Leader of the council Paul Watson has said however that while any members of the public are welcome to observe the meeting, a councillor can invite specific people, such as a resident from their ward, to the gathering and they maybe can be catered for afterwards.

Coun Watson said: “Members of the public are always welcome and are encouraged to observe council and committee meetings.

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“Full council meetings start at 6pm and often run for two to three hours, or even longer, and refreshments are provided for councillors at the end of the meeting.

“Where a councillor specifically invites a member of the public, such as a resident from their ward, then it may be possible to cater for them after the meeting.

“The post-meeting refreshments are a long-standing arrangement that has been a proven cost-effective alternative in comparison to councillors claiming an allowance.”

Coun Hodson has hit back at Coun Wood’s comments though, saying: “The suggestion from the local Conservatives that taxpayers should pay for meals after council meetings in order to stop councillors claiming larger sums in food expenses beggars belief.”

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“Councillors shouldn’t be provided with food after these meetings, nor should they be able to claim expenses for food just for turning up to do their job.

“It seems that both Labour and the Conservatives on Sunderland Council have formed an unholy alliance so they can keep wasting taxpayers money on food for themselves.

“I think that people across our city will find this hard to swallow.”‎