Anger over consultants' fees

SUFFOLK County Council was today facing a new row over use of taxpayers' money after it emerged it is spending £500 a day on consultants to lead its communications department.

SUFFOLK County Council was today facing a new row over use of taxpayers' money after it emerged it is spending £500 a day on consultants to lead its communications department.

They have been appointed temporarily following the sudden departure of the authority's communications chief Francis Thomas.

But furious opposition councillors have criticised the move, accusing the authority of “arrogantly” wasting taxpayers' money.

It is the latest recruitment row to hit the council, which came under fire for appointing its new chief executive Andrea Hill on a salary of up to £220,000 - around £70,000 more than her predecessor.

It also may appoint a new head of communications to replace Mr Thomas on a salary of between £63,000 and £81,000.

Until the new person comes in, the council is spending £20,000 - or £500 a day for two-and-a-half days a week over four months - on consultants to co-ordinate the work of the seven media officers and a staff of 10 to deal with internal communications.

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Sue Thomas, Labour's opposition spokeswoman on human resources and customer service, claimed: “It is now clear that the Conservatives' recruitment policy is completely out of control. How can it be right to use the council's money like this while cutting services to Suffolk's old and vulnerable?

“Huge wages rises at the top, cuts to care services and wasting millions of pounds on consultants - the Conservatives' arrogance when spending taxpayers money is there for all to see."

She said since the sudden departure of Mr Thomas - who is no relation - at the beginning of the month, the county was not only spending £500 a day on consultants, but also £7,720 on advertising for a replacement.

In addition, she said there would be an undisclosed amount in bonuses for covering the vacancy, and an undisclosed amount on a “golden handshake” for former head of communications.

The news comes just weeks before publication of boundary proposals which could lead to the abolition of the authority in under two years. The council has indicated there will be no appointment until the future of the authority becomes clearer.

The council's deputy leader Jane Storey said Labour was being “extremely misleading”.

Mrs Storey said: “The fact is we are paying less now than we would have paid the previous communications manager.

“Even taking account of paying a consultant £20,000, and an honorarium to existing staff for covering the post, it will be less than the £27,000 we would have paid our previous communications manager over this period.

“The amount spent on recruitment, at £7,720, is solely for placing the newspaper advert, and considerably less than the going rate. Throughout this process, every effort has been made to ensure that costs are kept to an absolute minimum.”

She defended the decision to appoint a full-time officer who might have less than two years in the job before changes in Suffolk's local government are introduced.

“The people of Suffolk have a right to be kept fully informed about what we are doing and the services we are providing, and we have a duty to communicate that information as effectively and clearly as possible. “

Mrs Storey added: “As for the package given to the outgoing Communications Manager, we are legally prevented from disclosing any details.

“Far from wasting money, this is an administration which has saved nearly £60 million over the last three years and is on course to save another £16 million this year, while providing more services to people than ever before, and delivering a council tax increase of 3.75per cent, the joint-lowest in the region.