A debate about a former mayor’s expenses descended into a heated row during which claims of fraud were made and the council was accused of being slapdash with taxpayers’ money.
Councillors were debating an internal audit report on expenses claims submitted by fellow councillor Alex Phillips, the former mayor of Brighton and Hove.
The report, before Brighton and Hove City Council’s Audit and Standards Committee, covered an investigation into Councillor Phillips’s expenses from October 2019 to March 2022. She was mayor for a year from May 2019.
The council’s counter-fraud audit manager Simon White told the committee that there was “no indication” of deception and receipts were provided for childcare “at a later date”.
A lack of clarity in the expenses rules meant that the investigation found six possible scenarios for overpayments of sums ranging from £143 to £482 depending on how the rules were interpreted.
Councillors can claim for an hour’s travel time to and from meetings but it was not clear, for example, whether this meant an hour before and after or an hour in total.
Another former mayor Anne Meadows called for Councillor Phillips to face sanctions during heated exchanges at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Tuesday 28 June).
The Conservative councillor said that the claims were fraudulent even though the council’s senior legal officer Abraham Ghebre-Ghiorghis blamed oversights and poor organisation rather than being deliberate and dishonest.
Councillor Meadows said that Councillor Phillips was on a “power trip”. She had chosen to become an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) and stood for Parliament while working for Lord Bird in the House of Lords, serving as mayor and parenting a young child.
She also said that officials were to blame for being “over-familiar” and “too generous with money that was not theirs to hand out”.
The audit report said that six forms were missing from council records over two financial years.
Councillor Meadows said: “It goes on to claim that she provided them later on but why not put the copies with the expenses form unless – and this is the question for me – you need time to fabricate them because she couldn’t find the missing six forms that took a large chunk of the period being looked at.”
Councillor Meadows also raised the issue of pre-paid childcare in Brighton and Hove when Councillor Phillips was in France and attending meetings virtually.
She added: “Councillor Phillips has been overpaid. That is clear. It’s very nicely put but what I believe is that she knew what she was claiming for and how and why. It was deliberate and calculated. That is the definition of fraud.”
Councillor Phillips has since paid back the money that she claimed for pre-booked childcare and paid £490 “on account” to cover any other repayments deemed necessary.
Another former mayor, Green councillor Pete West, said: “We have heard now a number of unsubstantiated allegations on Councillor Meadows’ opinion of fraud.
“I think the report is quite clear that councillor Phillips was exonerated of any such suggestion.
“I feel there is some grandstanding going on here for the press … (picking up) on some more damning comments and a personalisation of this particular case.”
Councillor West said that Councillor Phillips had no intent to make a false claim and the council should now “look forward”.
He said that the expenses scheme was inadequate and that councillors needed administrative support.
He added that, as someone who had raised three children during his years as a councillor, the paperwork was “burdensome”.
Councillor West said that the council should introduce a digital system because it was “shocking” that councillors’ expenses were still submitted on paper and the system needed “dragging into the 21st century”.
Another former mayor, Conservative councillor Garry Peltzer Dunn, said that there had been a “slapdash” approach to the scheme which was “a pig’s breakfast”.
Labour councillor Daniel Yates quoted the report saying that some childcare costs had not been claimed, showing a lack of intent. But, Councillor Yates said, not committing crimes in the past was not an excuse.
He criticised officials for apparently moving some of Councillor Phillips’s expenses into a different financial year so that she would not breach a cap on the amount that could be claimed.
He said: “I don’t think the public should be happy about that. I think they should be quite pissed off because I am.
“I think it’s a disgrace that people have just said put the money in the next financial year. That will be fine.
“What happens to taxable income if it’s being treated like that? What are the tax implications of that? What are the accounting implications of that as an organisation signing off on our returns when we have no outstanding liabilities?
“Councillor Meadows may have said a lot of things I might find uncomfortable but, in terms of accounting, it’s more than uncomfortable. It’s not right.”
The committee noted the report and called for a switch from paper-based claims to a digital expenses system for councillors.
It asked an independent remuneration panel to look at extending the time limit for submitting claims from two to three months.
The Audit and Standards Committee is due to receive an update at a future meeting.
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