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Highlands and Islands Enterprise staff claim £1k a week for food bill

By Louise Glen

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Highland and Islands Enterprise headquarters at Inverness Campus.
Highland and Islands Enterprise headquarters at Inverness Campus.

PUBLIC spending campaigners have hit out at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) where staff are on course to claim almost £53,000 in meal allowances this financial year – more than £1000 per week.

A freedom of information request by the Courier has revealed that 103 members of staff at the business agency claimed £26,967.47 between them from April to the end of November 2019.

That is £261.82 per person and looking forward to the rest of the financial year puts it on course to top the 2017/18 claim of £45,452.61, and just behind the 2018/19 total cost of £56,093.40.

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Reasonable expenses are one thing, but taxpayers who are buying their own lunches when they go to work every day might wonder why they are also paying for public sector staff to dine out.

“We keep hearing that public services are stretched to breaking point, but when there is scope to reduce bills like this taxpayers may wonder whether enough effort is dedicated to making savings.”

A spokeswoman for HIE defended the claims, saying stringent checks were in place for all expenses.

She said: “There are more than 300 employees working for HIE in a region that covers more than half the country. Most staff members are required to travel at some point in the course of their duty, some more frequently than others. This may be within the region, between the region and other parts of Scotland or the UK, or in some cases overseas.

“Anyone who has to travel away from their desk in order to deliver his or her duties effectively is of course entitled to reclaim expenses for having done so.

“The costs associated with HIE staff travel and expenses are proportionate and appropriate for the organisation’s remit and region.”

Meanwhile, Highland councillors claimed £3096.96 for meals for 2018/19 – up from £2974.04 for the previous 12 months.

Councillor Biz Campbell (Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh) was the highest claimant, collecting £506.55 in meal expenses.

This included maximum claims of £25 for separate meals at the Kitchen and River House restaurants in Inverness, as well as the North Kessock Hotel. Other receipts showed meals at Zizzi, 1st Pizza Direct, Lorimers, Mr Rice and Dingwall Mart.

Councillor Donald Mackay (Thurso and Northwest) claimed £466.33 with receipts including at least 30 visits to the Castle Restaurant, plus trips to KFC and Jimmy Chung’s.

More than 50 councillors did not claim anything for food as part of their expenses including council leader Margaret Davidson.

A council spokesman said: “Councillors are entitled to be reimbursed for meals taken outside their electoral ward and not within local authority premises.

“Entitlement to claim is dependent on the member being away from home for more than three hours.”

Council allowances for meals are £8 for breakfast, £12 for lunch and £25 for dinner, which is acceptable if purchased after 4pm.

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