Council defends cost of hi-tech device

COUNCIL tax campaigners last night called on budget chiefs to justify forking out £60,000 on mobile state-of-the-art technology for councillors and staff - after announcing sweeping £24million cuts.

By Danielle Nuttall

COUNCIL tax campaigners last night called on budget chiefs to justify forking out £60,000 on mobile state-of-the-art technology for councillors and staff - after announcing sweeping £24million cuts.

Suffolk County Council has provided 16 councillors and 33 members of staff with new Blackberry devices - hand held gadgets that allow business people to receive and send emails on the move.

The devices, which look like large calculators and work in sync with home or office computers, cost about £400 to buy and up to about £900 to run per year.

This means the county council is already spending up to £63,700 on the Blackberry devices in use.

Last month the council outlined radical £24million cuts and job losses, hitting adult social care and children's services, including support for foster carers.

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Last night Reg Hartles, of the Suffolk Protest Against Council Tax group, said: “People are more important than technical devices. We have managed without them before, why are they suddenly necessary?

“I'm not in favour of cutting any type of social services. We have got to keep a check on these things. If it's £60,000 going to technical devices as opposed to people, obviously it doesn't sound so good.

“There is a big question mark there. We would like them to justify it and answer the big question.

“We really need convincing that £60,000 spent on this is worthwhile.”

Those presently eligible for Blackberry devices are council staff at assistant director level and above and other staff approved by an assistant director, director of the chief executive or because their role requires it.

There is no agreed policy for which councillors should receive the technology, but current practice is for the leader and deputy leader of the council, portfolio holders and the leader and deputy of opposition groups.

A report, due to be presented to the council's resources, finance and procurement scrutiny committee on March 28, recommends it endorses the continuing provision of the Blackberry devices, saying they “represent good value”.

Jeremy Pembroke, council leader, said: “We are running a business with revenue of £700million. We employ, including teachers, 27,000 people. In order to do it efficiently and properly, we do need up to date communication systems.

“I pay for my own mobile phone calls as most people do. My telephone bill per month is a lot and it's entirely on county council business. I pay for that myself.

“I also spend a lot of my time at meetings outside the county and I do need to keep in touch and I do need to know what's going on. A Blackberry is a very useful tool to achieve that.”

Mr Pembroke added: “I welcome the paper to scrutiny. We need to be absolutely sure the right people have them and people who perhaps do have them we need to make sure it's correct they still have them.”

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