County lunches back on the menu

THERE’S no such thing as a free lunch . . . unless you’re a member of Suffolk County Council!

With the authority facing cuts of up to a third in its income over the next six years, the authority has decided now is the time to re-introduce a free meal before meetings.

More than three years ago the county decided to scrap its free lunches for councillors after discovering that the money had run out two years earlier.

But they were re-introduced after last May’s elections – and are once again a feature of full councils at Endeavour House.

Only now they are not described as “lunch.” They are officially a member’s briefing by chief executive Andrea Hill with refreshments.

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Council leader Jeremy Pembroke said it was decided to reinstate the meals in June because it gave councillors the opportunity to meet senior officials informally – and to talk to each other about matters of mutual interest.

Mr Pembroke said: “I asked other political leaders and got the message that members would welcome this kind of informal meeting.

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“It gives us the chance to hear from the chief executive or another council director and to network among ourselves.

“You have to see this in the context that we are one of the two most cost-efficient county councils in the country.”

But the scale of the refreshments surprised Labour group leader Sandy Martin.

He said: “I was asked by Jeremy Pembroke whether refreshments should be provided at a lunchtime briefing.

“I said that if it was at the only time when members would have a chance to get some lunch that would not be unreasonable – but I am not sure that they need to be as good as they are!”

A choice of hot and cold meals is provided for up to 100 councillors and senior officers – there is a budget of between �400 and �500 every meeting.

Opposition leader Kathy Pollard, who leads the Liberal Democrat group, boycotts the lunches.

“They started after the last election – at the annual meeting there was a briefing to get to know each other, but it has continued since then.

“Many of us feel they are unjustified and avoid them. We have group meetings in the morning and are grateful of a bit of time out before the meeting – but it is all a matter of principle.”

Free lunches were provided for councillors until September 2006.

At that time the council maintained they were not paid for by council taxpayers, but by a legacy from a former councillor who died in the early 20th century.

However after checking the accounts they discovered that his legacy had run out two years earlier, and the free lunches were stopped.

Cabinet member Guy McGregor was quick to defend the lunches.

He said: “They are very valuable in giving us the chance to meet backbenchers and for them to discuss local issues with senior officers. I think it is small-minded to be too critical of these proposals.

“We don’t have our own councillors’ dining room and we don’t have extravagant meals with wine like some authorities.”

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