Fury over free council meal

A row has erupted after councillors tucked into a free meal – immediately before agreeing a belt-tightening annual budget and council tax rise.

Eighteen members sat down for a three-course meal of soup or melon, chicken curry or cottage pie, and Bakewell tart – all at the taxpayers' expense – before attending a meeting to confirm this year's budget.

The meeting of the ruling Cabinet and the Overview and Scrutiny committee, lasted less than 25 minutes to push through proposals for 3m of budget cuts and a package of service cost increases to give a council tax rise of 2.58%.

The dinner cost the borough more than 175 and an angry opposition councillor claims free town hall meals cost more than 30,000 per year.

Independent Conservative Group leader Coun Gareth Fairhurst said he was sick of seeing councillors "filling their faces" at the Metro's expense.

A spokesman for the Metro pointed out that if councillors didn't have this free meal facility they would be legally entitled to claim subsistence.

Coun Fairhurst said: "I have never taken a free meal or drink from the council and have long said this should stop.

"At the budget meeting, they sat down for 40 minutes to enjoy a free meal even though the meeting only lasted 25 minutes.

"While I know the council say some people travel straight from work to meetings and this way they can have a hot meal before the meeting, but I work over 60 miles away and I either take sandwiches with me or I eat when I get home.

"But most of these Labour councillors in the canteen do not work, so why couldn't they have eaten before they left home or when they got back?

"It's a disgrace and the councillors who took the meal should reimburse the council."

Click next page for what the councillors say ...Coun Chris Ready, Labour Cabinet spokesman, said that Wigan had a high percentage of working councillors.

He said: "If they have to be away from their families, often late into the evening, it's perfectly reasonable for them to have a meal.

"This isn't a party political issue since councillors of other parties also take meals if they are attending meetings. It happens across the country and it's in line with the national guidelines.

"The cost of a meal is included in councillors' allowances, which are regularly reviewed by an independent panel, and if they didn't have a meal councillors would be entitled to claim subsistence allowance."

The leader of the Democratic Alliance opposition, Coun Paul Tushingham, said that he tries to have a meal at home before any council meetings that occur around 6pm.

And whenever he knows a meeting is likely to finish early, he will wait until arriving home before dining. He said: "I have seen some councillors having a meal in the town hall and then leaving, hopefully for business elsewhere.

"But if they are leaving for home then I consider this practice leaves them open to criticism.

"I do recognise, however, that some councillors may have been here and in meetings during the afternoon with other meetings continuing into the early and, in some cases, late evening. In instances like this, it is sensible for them to have a meal."

Conservative group leader Coun Michael Winstanley said Tory members of the overview and scrutiny committee had not taken a meal before the meeting, even though they were entitled to do so.

"I am surprised he knows how long councillors spent in the dining room when he turned up late for the meeting itself and failed to say anything at such a very important meeting, called to discuss the budget and the council tax rise.

"He should be more concerned with the big issues that matter to residents in his ward and across the borough and he can be assured that the Conservative group will be voting against the council tax rise."

Independent member of the committee, Coun Bob Splaine, said that the budget meeting would have lasted only 15 minutes without questions being tabled by the opposition.

He said: "Councillors already get an allowance – and a good one at that – without needing to have free meals thrown in.

"I never take the meals and if councillors need to take them because of meetings, they should pay for them. I too think it was scandalous that some councillors claimed a free meal for a meeting that lasted less than half-an-hour.

"I'm not begrudging councillors a sandwich if they have had to miss out on meals because of meetings, but I think the three course meal is outrageous and I will continue to speak out and campaign against it because, as Coun Fairhurst says, something needs to be done about it."