All aboard the gravy train

We have just gone through an election for our new councils. Little did we know that while we were being talked to about the need for balanced budgets and battling austerity that some of our very own public representatives have been jetting off around the world and it appears for a few money has been no object. Sure, as our friends over at Pantene would say, you’re worth it!

Tonight we name and shame some of the councillors and their claims for travel expenses and overseas travel.

Travel to meetings

Cllrs have to get around to a variety of meetings as part of their jobs, it is the nature of politics but there is a massive disparity between some councillor’s expenses in this area and others.

Take Cllr Frank McCoubrey for example who over the 2013/14 period claimed £2,112.50 for travel to meetings related to council business.  Compare this to his party colleague and representative for the same ward Brian Kingston who claimed just £150.15 for the same period. Keeping McCoubrey company is former Mayor Cllr. Jim Rodgers who has charged £1,648.70 on travel in the last year to the rate payer.

Over on the nationalist side, Cllr Jim McVeigh claimed £1,487.20 for travel, but this in fairness is a bit lighter than the claim made by SDLP Cllr Pat McCarthy who sent a bill to the rate payer of £1,868.10 for the last year.

Then we have Cllr Mervyn Jones, who claimed £1,289.10 for travel, while his party colleague who shares the same ward, Laura McNamee, claimed nothing for the same period.

Honourable exceptions in this category include Niall Ó Donnghaile, Chris Stalford, Gavin Robinson and Nichola Mallon who claimed nothing at all during this period.

Overseas Travel

Worst offenders here include…….Cllr Deirdre Hargey, who for one night in New York in June 2013 charged £769.18 for a room. The entire trip including flights and food cost £2,542.24. Contrast this to Bernie Kelly who went in September of that year and paid less than half of that price £382.

But not to be out done her party colleague, Cllr Caoimhín Mac Giolla Mhín, decided to take in the sights of Hefel, Austria for 4 nights at a nice cost of £2,774.98. CORRECTION-It was actually Hefei, China, which does make more sense for that cost. Thanks to commenter JAG for pointing out this error.

Then we have Cllr Guy Spence who on a night to New York for a conference ended up costing £1,919.61. Compare this type of expenditure to Cllr Laura McNamee who managed to make it to Nigeria and charge just £259.

There are some honourable exceptions here too, Ruth Patterson, Catherine Curran, Tierna Cunningham and Mary Clarke.

Final thought

Slugger doesn’t highlight this to say all of them are at it, but we just think this should be made as widely available as possible. So many people are struggling in this city and the next time a Cllr comes to your door to say how much they are on your side, look these figures up and find out if they really are.

We understand that Councillors often do not make their own travel arrangements but surely they individually and collectively should take steps to ensure that we, as rate payers, get value for money.

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  • Michael Henry

    The Gravy train is full- of that there is no doubt- but why just mention the Politicians carrage – there are a lot of Journalists on that Gravy train also- I would like to see ALL the BBC members bills for free trips and free sights free overseas travel- at least the people have the opportunity to kick the Politicians off the Gravy train – ( or keep them on )- we don’t get that chance with the BBC who spend the publics money like it’s their own-

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t mind too much if councillors working away from home sort themselves out with a decent hotel and a good dinner but there is no way in hell that this would cost over £2000. I was in Las Vegas a year ago at the height of the summer and spent considerably less than this on accommodation and food for a two week holiday. New York is more expensive but it’s not that bad.

    I’d also be interested to know if these claims are tax free and, if so, under exactly what rules the Inland Revenue has determined that such expenses should be non-taxable. When I’m working away from home my allowances are little more than one-tenth of those quoted above, and this is largely because the Inland Revenue is aggressive about making sure that employers are not using expenses as a way to give employees tax-free bonuses.

  • I’m reluctant to simply judge councillors against the level of expenses. I’m also very reluctant to clip the wings of travelling councillors in case public representatives are trained to be insular and not look for examples and learning outside these islands. Whether the councillors are directly involved implementing new programmes, their enthusiasm, understanding and ability to help overcome institutional and local hurdles could be useful.

    Travel costs for some trips may have been split across multiple organisations and funders – meaning that individuals need to be asked to explain the circumstances. Without those explanations, the figures are hard to interpret … unless compared with previous years and the trends analysed.

  • Rab12345

    Frank McCoubrey doesn’t drive, he needs taxis. Brian Kingston does drive, that might explain the difference.
    Sure, if you bothered ringing Frank, his number is available on the council website, he could have told you this.
    A totally feeble attempt at journalism that would be laughed out of any newsroom.
    Jim McVeigh lives in Lurgan, that might explain his fuel costs, which again could have been checked by a simple phone call, which wasn’t made.
    I remeber the days when Davy Browne and co regularly topped 10k per year in expenses, most of it travel.
    If this chart is the worst of the Belfast councillors excesses then they’re doing the ratepayers a great service in bringing the previosuly extortinate figures down.

  • Jag

    Great info, well done, we need more of this sort of thing, it’s amazing to see the strength of cause-effect when salaries and perks are threatened.

    There is one glaring error above,

    “Cllr Caoimhín Mac Giolla Mhín, decided to take in the sights of Hefel, Austria for 4 nights at a nice cost of £2,774.98.”

    No, he travelled to Hefei NOT Hefel. Hefei is in China, which probably justifies the GBP 2k travel, though his party colleague Mary Lou McDonald has gotten into some bother in the 26 counties for spending €4k on business class Australian travel. “It wasn’t paid for by the taxpayer” protested MLD, missing the point that in the case of SF, the excess of TD’s/MLA’s/MP’s salary over the average wage is paid to the party and the party also collects substantial expenses from the State just for existing, based on its number of TDs (around €1,084,384 in the case of SF in 2011). So MLD claiming the business travel was not met by the taxpayer is as convincing as Enda Kenny telling us that Anglo bondholders were paid out of Anglo’s own resources (we shovelled €30bn into Anglo in a taxpayer bailout).

  • Chris Browne

    I don’t know whether to be surprised or not to see this on Slugger. I always feel uncomfortable about these sorts of attacks, presenting the figures without any context whatsoever and with no opportunity for the councillors themselves to input. The authors also make no effort to provide a comparative example of travel expenses in a similar sized council or local authority in Engalnd, Scotland or Wales. As noted by another poster, this is very lazy ‘journalism’. Additionally, usage of the terms ‘gravy train’ and ‘offenders’ is a direct accusation that these individuals are milking the system – an attack on their characters that could be considered slanderous?

    First of all, let’s be clear – no matter what the level of expenses, people will always criticise our councillors for travelling anywhere, assuming that they are off for a jolly and not promoting Belfast’s interests on a global scale. Alan is completely right to point out that these sorts of attacks will deter our public representatives from travelling anywhere and building vital links with other municipal bodies and businesses. What, I ask, do we suggest as a solution? Do we cut off every bridge out of Belfast and assume that every lesson to be learned, every story to be told and every bridge to be built can be done within the confines of the island of Ireland? Do people genuinely see absolutely no benefit in these trips?

    The context for each individual trip is also critically important. There is often an explanation as to a relatively high cost for a trip and, I can assure you, the blame probably doesn’t lie with the individual councillor. Let’s actually consider these things before we accuse them of essentially stealing public funds to go on a tax-payer funded holiday. Let’s also consider what proportion these travel costs are out of the entire Council budget, the total travel spending in previous years and, as previously noted, what other councils in capital cities are spending.

    Yes, a trip to NYC for a night costing £2k does seem excessive, but let’s withold judgement until we get a little context. How late was the trip booked? What was the event and were the links built worth the money spent? I would also note that we should see the findings and outworkings of these trips shared more regularly by our councillors, perhaps with a short summary document made available on the Council’s website?

    I do hope that Slugger will publish any corrections or contributions from the councillors concerned.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Fair’s fair on the transport costs, I’d agree they’re not extortionate, but surely you must agree that on face value £2K for one night in New York is a bit suss.

  • chrisjones2

    Frank McCoubrey doesn’t drive, he needs taxis.

    There are buses

  • chrisjones2

    I decent hotel in New York is £200 ….not nearly £800

    And above all, why do they need to travel so much? BUt all this as naught to the thousands in expenses they have been awarded in the new councils its a gravy train

  • Comrade Stalin

    “It wasn’t paid for by the taxpayer” protested MLD, missing the point that in the case of SF, the excess of TD’s/MLA’s/MP’s salary over the average wage is paid to the party and the party also collects substantial expenses from the State just for existing

    We explored this in detail on Slugger some time ago. There are legal limits in the RoI of how much salary can be paid into the party by any one person and it is a small proportion of a TD’s salary. SF TDs pay the maximum but they are left with a significant excess. In any case, what TDs decide to do with their salary, whether it is to do with meeting a party obligation or not, is a private matter (provided it is lawful and taxes are paid up etc).

    Secondly, that logic isn’t fair as you are saying that any time a public representative spends part of their salary it counts as spending public money. This isn’t right. Once a salary is paid to a public representative it is no longer public money.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t mind the travel but it should at least be on the same basis as when those of us grinding away in the private sector have to meet expenses.

  • chrisjones2

    You have to stop this Michael

    That’s twice in a week I have agreed with you

  • Jag

    Perhaps Angela Kerins, formerly of Rehab can explain the logic to us all!

    MLD said the party paid the €4k. SF TDs sacrifice the excess over the average wage for the greater good of the party, which causes hardship to some, but also allows the party and its TDs to claim they are staying in touch with the financial realities facing low and middle income families.

    So, on one hand, TDs and SF get the benefit of proclaiming their sacrifice, yet on the other hand, the party is shelling out €4k for business travel. You can’t have it both ways!

    Having said all that, MLD is a fine parliamentarian and I wouldn’t begrudge her getting some shut-eye on a 24-hour journey in business class. But having said that, SF tries to have it both ways and that needs to be challenged.

  • Michael Henry

    I agree that Local Politicians wages / expenses are made public and is talked about- this is democracy- but why do ones who write about local Politicians get to scared to do the same job on our anti democratic Secretary of State- what is her expenses- why is her Gravy left out- what about the Prime minister and the rest of the Tory party who are our anti democratic government- why are there money schemes not on this list-talk about ALL not just the locals- don’t be afraid of the truth-

  • I’m Trending on Twitter

    I can explain Guy Spence’s, he has to take his mummy with him on trips as he’s not old enough to go alone.

  • It is important to put context around the expenses claims of councillors.

    Firstly, councillors are modestly remunerated for the work they do, and the vast majority work very long hours serving their constituents. Therefore it is incumbent on Belfast City Council to ensure that expenses incurred on council business are reimbursed.

    Secondly, we have a very robust process in relation to travel. For example, overseas travel requires approval by the council and assurances on the purpose and benefits to the city. Councillors (and officers) are worked extremely hard on these missions and will have full itineraries from early morning to late evenings. Belfast is continuing to transform itself and has to be outward looking. To that end, members need to attend best practice events and participate in trade missions or other trips aimed at attracting jobs, investment and tourists.

    In relation to the issue highlighted about the high cost of hotel rooms in the USA, this was an error on the website and is being corrected as figures relate to a number of nights, not a single night.

  • Croiteir

    Without context these figures mean nothing. A down with this sort of thing post. I expect better from Slugger.

  • barnshee

    “Secretary of State- what is her expenses- why is her Gravy left out- what about the Prime minister and the rest of the Tory party who are our anti democratic government- why are there money schemes not on this list-talk about ALL not just the locals- don’t be afraid of the truth-”

    Welcome back from whatever distant galaxy you have been on .

    MPs expenses (inc the SOS) are/were a national scandal -you could catch up by reading “No Expenses Spared” by Winnett and Rayner (Publisher Corgi Books) which spilled the beans.

    You could also go current
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/12/mps-expenses-under-fire

    They write about these things in newspapers and books
    Ourr local variety of the blight that is the political class are big on motor mileage claims, trips abroad and buying flats in London with the “housing allowance”, paying inflated rents to property owned by supporters and of course hotel bills in Luxury hotels.

    WTF they need to “travel” when there job is here I leave you to explain.

  • barnshee

    ” Do we cut off every bridge out of Belfast and assume that every lesson to be learned, every story to be told and every bridge to be built can be done within the confines of the island of Ireland? Do people genuinely see absolutely no benefit in these trips?”

    And the councillors are construction engineers ?

    Councillors and MLA`s are largely professional politicians
    With a few honourable exceptions they are unemployed (and unemployable) Or I am sadly mistaken and the political classes are swamped by professionals and experienced business entrepreneurs.
    Perhaps not

  • I have done a bit of digging on the figures, the dates for several councillors’ trips were entered incorrectly. For example the trips to America did not last just one day, which Guy Spence was spectacularly angry about. Mervyn Jones is regional officer for the National Association of Councillors and his trips to London for that were included in his travel to meetings rather than conference and visits which is why his expenses looked very high. Some councillors did not get back to me but the majority have reasonable explanations for their expenses.
    Comparing expenses between councillors risks penalising those who are busiest when the figures are not broken down. Belfast City Council certainly deserve a share of the blame for inaccuracies and the lack of detail but sensationalising those figures without a care for their accuracy or meaning is misleading to voters and it’s pretty disappointing that Slugger is engaging in that. “Name and shame”?

  • I’m Trending on Twitter

    I did say these guys were a spin off from LAD and to stay clear…

  • Mister_Joe

    I agree that they do an enormous amount of work. I considered running for Council here about 15 years ago so I went to a course organized by a local Community College. After talking to people who already were councillors, I was totally put off by the mount of work since I already had some community volunteer work under way.