Bun fight over move to scrap free meals for Sunderland councillors

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A political debate descended into a bun fight when political opponents in Sunderland got their teeth into the controversial issue of free meals for councillors.

Liberal Democrats – who had tabled the motion at the full council meeting – entitled The Council Buffet or: How I Learned to Stop Troughing and Love the Packed Lunch’ – found themselves having lunchboxes waved at them by the ruling Labour group.

Currently, all Sunderland City Council staff, councillors and guests can have a free meal after a full council meetings at a public cost of £5,000 a year.

The motion called for the catering to be scrapped – along with subsistence allowances in cases not involving an overnight stay.

At the meeting on Wednesday, council leader, Coun Graeme Miller served up the starter by holding up a lunchbox in the direction of the Liberal Democrat opposition.

The next course was served up by Coun Barbara McClennan, on behalf of the ruling group, who attempted to tempt councillors with a selection of “happy meal deals”.

Describing the Lib Dem group as “troublesome children,” she said a happy meal included a protein bar to give the councillors “increased energy levels so they’re able to do their job properly” and a model dinosaur to “familiarise themselves with what their life would be like after May elections”.

During the meeting, opposition councillors made several calls for Labour to “stick to the motion” – with Coun Stephen O’Brien describing their actions as “ridiculous”.

Coun McClennan explained that it was cheaper to provide free meals to councillors than process 75 individual expenses claims.

She said: “I’m equally outraged that you can think of nothing more important to debate than this twaddle when the council has been stripped financially to the bone and faced with nine years of austerity imposed by a Tory and Liberal Democrat government.

“We should be debating the impact of austerity on employment, growing housing waiting lists, and the plethora of unscrupulous landlords renting substandard properties to the most vulnerable. Not pie and chips.”

Lib Dem group leader, Coun Niall Hodson, said his party doesn’t claim the free buffet and suggested councillors could bring in packed lunches or go elsewhere.

After three years of deep budget cuts, he also accused the council of “protecting itself and its own perks”.

He said: “I think we have to show that the punishing cuts that affect this council affect its councillors as well.

“Perks like free dinners should absolutely have been the first thing to go. They’re indefensible.”

“There is a long-running perception of councillors being on the gravy train and successive council leaders have done nothing to challenge it.

“Quite the opposite, like the current leader who defended it with preposterous non arguments to say it’s cheaper having councillors get a free buffet than having them claim for food expenses.”

Coun Graeme Miller, said the council had a “duty of care” to councillors, staff and guests as late meetings stretch on and accused the opposition group of using catering as a “smokescreen” to mask their own record in coalition government.

He said: “Our last full council on November 19 lasted nearly four-and-a-half hours finishing just before 10.30pm.

“Are people seriously saying its wrong to feed our staff, guests and all our councillors if they want it after possibly a 10-hour break from their last meal?

“Are you really saying that, in the 21st century, that’s how uncaring we need to be.”

He added: “You have an abysmal record both locally and nationally and helped to introduce some of the most malicious policies ever to impact on the British people.

“Austerity as political tool, the bedroom tax, imposing universal credit, lying to students about fees and then supporting the Tories in government to increase them.”

Cabinet secretary, Coun Paul Stewart, told members the council was facing a funding gap of £293.9million due to austerity and government cuts.

Deputy council leader, Michael Mordey, also stressed that out of 75 elected members, only £184.03 was claimed in subsistence allowance in 2017/18.

In 2018/19 so far only £25.88 had been claimed.

After discussion, a final vote on proposals to scrap free meals was defeated with 13 votes in favour, 46 against and one abstention.

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service