Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 26th March 2013.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 7:10 pm, 26th March 2013

My birthday is on Sunday.

I draw the House’s attention to what I said in the pre-Christmas recess debate on 20 December at columns 1082 to 1085, with reference to the scandalous financial transactions made by the then leader of Essex county council, courtesy of the public purse. It is estimated that, from 2002 to January 2010, he spent nearly £450,000, an average of £1,000 a week, through credit card payments. It is ludicrous for anyone to say that those payments were for the benefit of the council taxpayers of Essex, who were paying for his life of Riley, including 62 overseas visits in five years.

Official documents detail every item of his expenditure, totalling £287,000, from March 2005 to January 2010. Records for the previous three years, according to Essex county council, are not available. I would be surprised if the council did not have bank statements which would reveal the total expenditure claimed by the leader of the council via the credit card the council issued to him even if the details are not on file. I ended my speech by saying:

“Only a full independent inquiry into the stewardship of the council from 2002 to 2010 will serve to draw a line under this most disgraceful period since Essex county council was established in 1889.”—[Hansard, 20 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 1085.]

I regret to inform the House that Essex county council has refused to implement an independent public inquiry.

The Tory leadership is in denial. No amount of whitewash of county hall will prevent the stains of financial chicanery from remaining visible for all to see. Sadly, the situation can now be revealed to be even worse than I told the House three months ago. Last week it was revealed that council employees working directly to the leader of the council were also milking the system. County council staff, working in what it is now obvious was a party political manner for the leader of the council, had their own council-issued credit card and ran up bills of their own totalling £70,000, which would appear in every respect to have been for the benefit of the political career and aspirations of the council leader rather than for the people of Essex. Let me give one example.

The leader of the council was accompanied to the 2009 Conservative party conference by council staff. That in itself is in breach of the local government code of conduct: council staff should not be engaged in party political activities. They certainly should not be attending party conferences, and they should most certainly not expect the council taxpayers of Essex to pick up the bill. In this case, it came to £5,080.98. A breakdown includes not just accommodation and meals but £248 for wine at a reception. This has so outraged the distinguished political commentator Mr Simon Heffer that in his column in the Daily Mail last Saturday he wrote:

“Tory-controlled Essex County Council let its former Leader off the hook by failing to pursue him over a £286,000 credit card bill he racked up while flying around the world with cronies and dining in style.”

That was outrageous enough, considering that the former council leader was jailed for fiddling his expenses, but it turns out that the council also paid this crook’s £4,600 Westminster bar bills, and its audit committee has learnt that his staff claimed £70,000 for trips abroad, hotels, restaurants and hiring clothes to attend Ascot. I am an Essex ratepayer and I want to know who sanctioned this wicked waste of money and what steps will be taken to reclaim it.

Mr Heffer concluded his article by saying:

“Meanwhile, no-one in Essex should vote Conservative in the Council elections on May 2.”

As Essex county council refuses to hand over this financial scandal to an independent investigation, I call on the Government to do so; otherwise, trust in Essex county council will remain at a very low level. To my mind, it is inconceivable that the leader of the council acted in the way he did—and for so long—without it being known at the highest level of the council: chief officers and those councillors closest to the leader must, surely, have suspected something was not right. Was he really the only rotten apple in the barrel?

What of the financial line management? Were suspicions not aroused when details of the credit card were listed? Where was the council’s internal audit? Did they not notice, or were they too afraid to raise concerns? I gather that there was a culture of bullying and intimidation at county hall, but that, surely, would not have applied to the external auditors?

The total sum involved tops £500,000. The Government must step in and order a full independent inquiry into the financial scandal at Essex county council.