Gifts to council workers revealed

EXCLUSIVE An outright ban on all gifts to public servants in Suffolk was called for last night after it emerged council staff received a plethora of presents, including handbags, a flight and shopping vouchers.

EXCLUSIVE

AN OUTRIGHT ban on all gifts to public servants in Suffolk was called for last night after it emerged council staff received a plethora of presents, including handbags, a flight and shopping vouchers.

Suffolk County Council has strict guidelines for the types of gifts and hospitality that its 27,000 employees can receive.

The county council's own code of conduct for gifts states: “All personal gifts from contractors, outside suppliers and similar persons and organisations should be discouraged, refused or donated to charity. “The only exceptions to this are insignificant items of token value, such as pens, diaries and calendars.”


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Following a request for information lodged by the EADT, the council revealed the gifts received so far this year, which includes handbags, bottles of Champagne, flowers, theatre tickets and an air ticket.

Using an estimated average value of £25 per item - the threshold above which gifts have to be declared - the value of presents and hospitality given to staff would run to £1,800.

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As a result, a complete ban on all gifts to council officers has been called for.

But this stance, according to county council leader Jeremy Pembroke, is unnecessary and could be seen as “downright rude” by organisations offering token gifts to council officers.

John Klaschka , chairman of the county council's audit committee, said: “My personal belief is that nobody in the public sector, whether an officer or a councillor, should accept any gifts of any kind.

“You've really got to be squeaky clean.”

Two of the 72 items received by officers between October last year and March this year - the most recent internal audit details available - were gift vouchers for high street shops valued at £25 and £20.

Asked whether he would have accepted a shopping voucher, Mr Klaschka said: “I would refuse it. For me as a councillor it would be a stupid risk.”

But Mr Klaschka admitted declining presents could be difficult for some staff, where a refusal to accept certain types of gifts or hospitality might be detrimental to the council or be perceived as rude.

He said in the cases of an officer who received a flight to Holland to look at lighting columns or offers of lunch to council staff, accepting was part and parcel of carrying out council business.

Mr Klaschka added: “We have a rigorous monitoring system which is audited twice per year against nationally set standards.

“Given the tight regulation and monitoring I would be very disappointed if anyone was to imply criticism of our officers.”

According to the list, the most commonly declared items were alcoholic gifts, followed closely by free lunches. More unusual items include a basket of plants, a tea towel, a knitted scarf and a box of recipe cards.

Five of the gifts declared by officers were handed over to the Cancer Campaign in Suffolk, the chosen charity of the former council chairman Jeremy Clover.

Two of those were from the council's chief executive, Mike More, who received Champagne, wine, a water jug and tickets to Ipswich Town's home clash against Leeds.

Reg Hartles, chairman of Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk, said: “I'm totally against staff being given gifts. They should not be getting rewards for doing a job we are paying them for.”

But Mr Pembroke said: “I am 100 per cent happy with the rigorous processes we have got and I believe we have got it about right.”

He warned that refusing a gift could be “downright rude” and that, as long as gifts were declared, the council was being open and transparent.

He added the council had a fully independent monitoring officer who could ask whatever questions he wanted of staff if there was ever any suspicion of inappropriate gift taking.

Charles Michell, current county council chairman, added: “It is so difficult if you do get given a gift - it is very difficult to not accept it. There are diplomatic niceties involved.”

Gifts received by staff at Suffolk County Council include:

Membership of Friends of Thetford Forest

£50 payment for an evening lecture

Flowers

£25 WH Smith voucher

Bowling and party for household recycling centre staff

A watch

A handbag

£20 Marks and Spencer voucher

Pantomime tickets

A knitted scarf

Fabric hanging decoration

A tea towel

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