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STAFFORDSHIRE: Plans to buy devices for all 41 members of council come under fire

STAFFORDSHIRE: Plans to buy devices for all 41 members of council come under fire

Photo by Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown.

A decision to buy all 41 members of Cannock Chase Council a laptop or tablet has been slammed by the authority’s opposition group after a request to keep using their own devices to save money was turned down.

The move towards “paperless” meetings will see councillors’ annual £400 communications allowance, which covers IT costs such as printing, replaced by a laptop or tablet to use during their term of office.

The authority’s Conservative group first called for the switch when the Labour administration was still in place. But its proposals were turned down last year, before the Labour group agreed to phase in the change for new members this year and offer existing councillors a choice of the allowance or a device.

In May the Conservatives took on the leadership of the council. They are now moving forward with the switch from IT allowance to devices, which they say will save thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money each year as well as reducing the authority’s carbon footprint as part of work to tackle climate change.

At Wednesday’s full council meeting (September 8) the measures to issue each member with a laptop or tablet during the current municipal year were approved and the communications allowance was axed.

Labour member Councillor Josh Newbury put forward an amendment to allow members who already have their own device to turn down the offer of a council-bought one but it failed to gain enough support.

Speaking after the meeting he said: “Many councillors, including myself, have used their own laptops or tablets for years and would like to carry on doing so. The new Conservative administration voted down my constructive suggestion to allow this, which could save the council thousands.

“They raised online security as a justification, but most councillors already have strong security on their devices, as do council email accounts. They couldn’t even answer basic questions such as whether councillors would be able to access their emails on their phone in future, or whether there have been any security issues caused by councillors using their own devices.

“I think many residents would agree that spending stretched council resources on laptops and tablets when most councillors could be supported by the IT team to use their own is hugely wasteful and makes no sense.”

Green Party member Councillor Andrea Muckley, who highlighted the environmental impact of manufacturing new devices, and Chase Community Independents group leader Councillor Paul Woodhead also backed the amendment.

But council leader Olivia Lyons told the meeting that discussions with the authority’s IT department had raised concerns about the security of members’ devices.

“They will not be anywhere near as secure”, she said. “We have casework details that are quite personal and I certainly wouldn’t want that to be a security risk and for our residents to have a security breach from that.

“This will greatly enhance security of confidential papers. Members still receive reams and reams of paper and this will help to reduce that.

“We are mindful there may be issues with accessibility. Full support will be provided and for members who find it difficult to use screens or laptops papers will be made available by exception.

“It will bring us into the 21st century. We are aiming for this council to be a modern and forward-thinking council and this is a positive step in the right direction.”

A statement from Cannock Chase Conservatives released after the meeting said: “We recognise the resistance of opposition parties, with some saying they have perfectly usable equipment, but this does not negate the security issue.

“For a number of years we have had serious concerns about councillors using their personal devices, in particular, when dealing with very sensitive topics and attending confidential online meetings. Very few workplaces would allow such activity on personal devices, given the security risks that are attached to this.

“This will save the tax payers of Cannock Chase a huge amount of money. We have previously pushed this in council, when we were in opposition, but were voted down numerous times over the past three years.

“Councillors currently receive an individual IT communications allowance of just under £400 per year. This equates to just under £16,400 per year for all 41 councillors combined.

“As each councillor serves a four-year term that equates to £65,500. To compare that to our plan for council-owned IT devices, the cost would be £24,500 for all 41 councillors, including the cost of the security software.”

But opposition group leader Councillor George Adamson, speaking after the meeting, said: “The Labour group supported the administration’s plans to scrap the £400-a-year communications allowance going forward. Earlier this year, we had already put in place plans to offer devices to newly elected councillors but now the Conservatives have decided all 41 councillors should be bought a device regardless of what they already use or their own preferences.

“Several Conservative councillors also sit on Staffordshire County Council, which buys tablets for its councillors, meaning they will have two taxpayer-funded devices. At a time when we are recovering from the pandemic and still being hammered by central government cuts, it beggars belief that one of the first original ideas from the new Conservative administration is to force every councillor to have a new council-funded device.

“We will continue to challenge this waste of public money and put forward constructive alternatives wherever we can.”

Words: Kerry Ashdown, Local Democracy Reporter

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