I wrote two weeks ago about the wasteful practice of local councils spending their taxpayers’ money on lobbying at political party conferences. Well, in my travels around the Manchester Exhibition centre this week I spotted two authorities who actually went to the extreme of hiring exhibition stands.
The first, occupying a prime plot right in front of the entrance to the hall, was Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council. Tameside has a track record of squandering money like this – last year, in Birmingham, their stand had a Wizard of Oz theme, and in Manchester, bizarrely, they were giving away a kit car as a prize. Unless they have a real emerald city left over from 2008, this must be costing the taxpayer a fortune.
Tameside’s addiction to national political conferences despite being a body charged with local responsibilities is a mystery. Perhaps it is a personal yen of its leader, who has run the Borough for Labour unchallenged since 1980, or perhaps it is a corporate culture of PR trumping concern for serving the local populace.
The other council caught red-handed was Cheshire East, a new council formed by Hazel Blears’ vastly unpopular rejig of Cheshire’s local government structures and controlled by the Conservatives. When I asked the council officer manning the stand whether she thought it was a waste of taxpayers’ money, she claimed that the stand itself had been recycled from a previous conference they had attended elsewhere – though of course her time and other resources had been used to attend the conference.
I pressed the question; is it really appropriate to use taxpayers’ money for party political lobbying? Assuming me to be a Conservative delegate, she went straight in for a sell based on open political bias. Apparently Cheshire East didn’t attend any other conferences, and – in an argument that shocked even me – had I considered that all the money is paid direct to the Conservative Party?
At this point, I introduced myself, which changed the tone of the conversation somewhat.
It is of course a problem that some councils and many quangos think it is appropriate to use taxpayers’ money, which is intended for service delivery, on political lobbying. It is particularly worrying that some staff at Cheshire East, judging from my conversation with them, think it is acceptable to defend the practice on the basis that it is a way of subsiding the Conservative Party.
Of course, this dodgy practice goes on at all three main parties’ conferences. As I mentioned in my previous column, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell is currently waging war on quangos who go to the conferences. The national political parties should join the fight, too, though – and they can do it very simply.
The parties should demonstrate their commitment to the good use of taxpayers’ money by refusing to accept bookings from public sector exhibitors. With the Conservative Party making a profit of £1.5m from this year’s conference, they could certainly afford to do so.
It is hard to imagine a better way to demonstrate that they are committed to stamping out waste, even if it means accepting a bit less cash themselves. By next year’s conference season we will – if the Government is taking the problem seriously – be seeing sizeable public spending cuts. It would be unacceptable to see cuts occurring elsewhere, but the parties themselves hoovering up taxpayers’ cash at their conferences.