By NEIL RIDDELL
SIC councillors’ allowances and expenses cost the public purse almost half a million pounds in the last year, according to official figures released from Lerwick Town Hall this week.
The bulk of the £476,152 spend was accounted for by the 22 councillors’ £15,838 annual allowance, coming to a total of £348,437, along with a further £31,564 on additional allowances for the convener and vice-convener roles and for chairs and vice-chairs of the various different council committees.
Although the overall figure shows an increase of more than £29,000 on last year, that is largely because 2007/8 included an election and members did not claim allowances and expenses for the full 12 months.
The general trend since 2005/6 shows that councillors are reducing their drain on the public purse, down £66,510 from a total cost of £535,103 three years ago, mainly as a result of a reduction in the number of councillors from 26 to 22 after boundary changes brought in at the May 2007 elections.
In the same period, the basic salary payable has risen from £13,886 to £15,838, taking the overall allowance bill up by around £43,000. That means the amount of expenses claimed has fallen by more than £100,000 since the number of councillors was cut.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness – who gets an additional £10,560 allowance as convener – said he hoped the fall in the amount of expenses being claimed in recent years also reflected the fact that “people are being more careful and responsible”. He said: “Throughout Scotland, there are fewer conferences than there used to be. There is a general feeling in Scotland that money is tighter and we should be more careful – hopefully that is reflected.”
The figures have been published at a time when public attention is closely focused on politicians’ expenses claims in the wake of a seemingly endless stream of revelations about Westminster MPs in The Daily Telegraph.
Josie Simpson – who has to travel to represent Shetland in Brussels, at other fisheries-related meetings and the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions (CPMR) – is the highest claimant, the bulk of his £15,478 going on travel and associated costs. He also gets an additional £3,961 allowance as vice-convener.
In second place is Florence Grains, who claimed £12,693 in “fares and other authorised payments” as she continued to takes taxis to and from her home in South Whiteness to attend meetings and carry out other council business, which has led to heavy public criticism in the past. She insists that, as she doesn’t drive and lives around a mile from the nearest bus stop, she has no alternative but to call a cab.
Councillor Robert Henderson, who lives in Cullivoe, claimed by far the highest amount for private vehicle use with £5,743, more than double the claim submitted by his fellow North Isles member Laura Baisley, who claimed £2,679 for using her own car.
At the other end of the scale, the lowest claimants were Bressay-based members Jonathan Wills and Caroline Miller. Dr Wills recouped only £71 over the year, but he was at pains this week to point out that his low claim should not reflect badly on his colleagues because he rarely takes his car from Bressay to Lerwick for council-specific business.
He said: “Having seen the council’s expenses arrangements and knowing how strict the administrators of the system are, I can assure the public there’s no way a councillor could make money on the side by claiming expenses from Shetland Islands Council, even if we were as ingeniously crooked as some MPs have shown themselves to be.”
The highest expenses claimant among the eight town councillors was the SIC’s European spokesman Gussie Angus with £9,298, followed by the £9,078 claimed by Mr Cluness – who made a series of trips out of Shetland to carry out his duties as convener over the year – and then Lerwick North member Allan Wishart on £4,133. As ZetTrans chairman, Mr Wishart also gets an additional £3,713 allowance.
Alastair Cooper submitted the highest amount of expenses among the trio of Shetland North members, with most of his £2,917 claim going on private vehicle use, while Addie Doull claimed £1,648 and Bill Manson £1,366. Mr Manson lives in Sullom but did not claim any mileage, which he said was simply because having previously owned a shop in Lerwick he simply hasn’t “got into the habit of writing out expenses vouchers”.
Of the three Shetland South councillors, Jim Budge proved to be the most frugal with a claim of only £1,446, compared to Allison Duncan’s £3,463 – he periodically attends fire board meetings in Inverness – and regular traveller Rick Nickerson’s £4,974. Mr Nickerson represented the council and its agreed anti-nuclear stance at meetings of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Nuclear-Free Local Authorities and other nuclear-related bodies in Manchester, Edinburgh, Thurso and Stornoway during 2008/9.
Mrs Grains’ Shetland West colleagues Frank Robertson and Gary Robinson claimed £5,675 and £1,053 respectively. Among the Shetland Central bunch, meanwhile, Iris Hawkins totted up £4,755, comfortably ahead of Betty Fullerton’s £1,536 and the £1,335 claimed by Andrew Hughson.
- Cuts are being made to the rate of expenses on offer to councillors and independent trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust.
The mileage rate to cover car use on trust duties is being reduced from 49.3p a mile to 40p and a new overnight allowance of £25 is being introduced for trustees who choose to stay with family or friends on trips away instead of claiming the bed and breakfast rate of up to £110 a night, rising to £131 a night in central London. Trustees can also claim £25 a night for dinner and £12 for lunch as well as all transport fares.
The trust expects the new rates will actually save money despite the additional allowance. At last Thursday’s meeting of the trust it was agreed that the rates will apply retrospectively from 10th February. They are similar to those applied at the same time to councillors on SIC duties.
It was also agreed that the expenses claimed by the 24 trustees – which only totals a fairly small four-figure sum – will be made public in the near future.