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Opposition looks to end free lunch for councillors

By Iain Ramage

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Maxine Smith
Maxine Smith

A FRESH attempt will be made this week to scrap councillors’ free lunches and save tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

The opposition SNP group will seek support for the move at a council meeting on Thursday as the local authority braces itself for another three years of deep budget cuts.

SNP group leader Maxine Smith and her deputy Richard Laird want to end the privilege of free meals for members attending committee meetings. They say that no one else at the council enjoys that luxury.

The councillors’ catering bill last year was £33,149.66. Members can claim up to £12 for lunch when attending a meeting or council engagement that lasts more than three hours.

Cllr Smith said: "We need to make savings as the council is having to cut services all over. It’s only right that councillors make every effort to contribute.

"Council staff and private sector workers pay for their lunches. Why should councillors get free lunches?

"It’s also time to expand the current café into something bigger that could accommodate staff and councillors.

"Why shouldn’t we eat with staff, if they don’t mind? It would be good to speak to them and maybe get ideas from them for future improvements to the council."

She added: "Richard and I haven’t taken free lunches for many years and buy in our own. I’ll occasionally go into the members’ canteen because I miss the craic."

After agreeing multimillion-pound budget savings for this year, councillors failed to reduce spending in their departmental budget – including lunches and snacks.

They pledged last year to reduce it by £16,000 but it emerged in March that the £160,000 budget was overspent by £4000.

All 74 councillors have an option of free meals where meetings stretch beyond the morning. This could include hot meals, rolls, tea, coffee and biscuits.

Opposition Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie said: "It would perhaps be more apt if the leader and depute leader of the SNP could first convince their own group to not take the lunches.

"It’s disappointing that this, along with asking to delay the budget by two weeks, are the only options the SNP can come up with to tackle our budget problems."

Three years ago, senior councillor Andrew Baxter, at the time an opposition backbencher, condemned councillors for continuing to accept free meals after previously pledging to start paying for them.

A request he submitted under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that only 17 members were paying for lunch – although it did not show how many were bringing their own.

John O’Connell of the Taxpayers’ Alliance said: "They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s certainly not true for these councillors.

"Many of us would like more freebies at work but few of us get food paid for by taxpayers. This practice should stop."

Other politicians enjoy far greater privileges at public expense. MPs can claim up to £25 for a meal.

No one at Holyrood could provide a figure for MSPs’ meal allowances but online information confirms they are permitted to claim up to £163 per night for accommodation.

Peers do not get meal expenses. But those not receiving a set salary have the option of claiming £305 per day just for turning up at the House of Lords. They have the option to decline the payment.

Most peers are not paid a salary. Some members of the Lords receive a salary because of the offices they hold, such as Lord Speaker and the chairmen and women of committees.

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