In Scotland published expenses for councillors are difficult find and contain a very limited level of detail.
Google for ‘councillor expenses’ or check the front page of the website of the 32 local authorities in Scotland and you will be very fortunate to find any links leading to councillor expense claims.
For Edinburgh council it was only when I precisely googled ‘elected member expenses’ that I found the data. For many other local authorities the search is longer and harder. Seldom are there links from the finance pages or from pages giving the personal information and register of interests of councillors. Dundee city council helpfully has an FAQ ‘Can I get details of Councillors’ expenses?’ Alas, the answer is simply ‘Councillors expenses are published in detail in the local press each year’.
The relevant regulations require local authorities to publish a record of councillors’ expenses ‘on a website operated by that authority’. A schedule sets out the form in which they should be published. Unfortunately, that form provides only for annual figures under five generic headings, salary, travel expenses, subsistence expenses, ICT expenses, other expenses.
So last month I submitted a motion to our council requesting disclosure on the internet of full details of claims paid out to councillors for expenses. From the chair, the Lord Provost ruled the motion incompetent because the council is already required to publish on its website ‘information’ on councillors’ expenses. I am confident that this unfortunate decision will be corrected quickly, though the level of disclosure may require some further discussion.
Full transparency is essential not just for public confidence in the current climate. It drives down claims and prevents councillors yielding to the temptation to become cavalier with public money. Scrutiny by the local newspaper using FOI requests has already driven down the total amount of expenses claimed in Edinburgh.
What lessons can be learned from the Westminster debacle?
There is a need for an expenses system with clear rules. I believe we broadly have that in Scotland. The system and the claims themselves need to be open to detailed scrutiny. Alas, the current system allows councillors to make their claims in the knowledge that it is very difficult for the public to find and scrutinise them. Robust finance department staff are an invaluable check but there is a tendency to defer to elected members who have the authority of a direct mandate from the electorate. Website publication of expense details needs to be made more accessible. It is not even clear that all councils comply.