Monday, 18 August 2014

They come bearing gifts....

Another Freedom of Information revelation from Scottish Borders Council allows me to pose the following question - what do four bottles of Smirnoff vodka, a day at Kelso races, a golf outing to Turnberry, flights to London with hotel accommodation and dinner, and a £20 box of Thornton's chocolates have in common?

Answer: They were all gifts or hospitality offered to members of the council's staff by private companies during the last three years, and have been logged on the local authority's in-house hospitality register. Apparently every enticement from firms the council has dealings with has to be recorded, but without that FOI request the details would not have been published on SBC's website. Time for a public register perhaps.

Although a significant number of gifts were turned down, a fair number were accepted, and in some cases the register contains comments explaining why the offer received the approval of department managers. But the names of the individuals who were wined and dined, took that trip to London or devoured the chocolates have been carefully blacked out.

We now know that the BTS department (Business & Technology Solutions) at SBC took delivery of the four bottles of Smirnoff (valued at £70) in October 2013 from a company called AVM Education Ltd, of Sunbury-on-Thames, specialists in audio visual and video conferencing.

There is no apparent reason for the gift, and in the manager's comments column the entry reads: "This was accepted by the staff who were unaware of the policy re-gifts etc. The vodka is in IT and we have suggested it is donated to charity."

BTS were also the beneficiaries of Dell/Microsoft's generosity in January 2012 with invitations to a Burns Supper at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (value £150). The invitation was accepted.

 And the same department was offered a £69 Amazon Kindle by the Scottish Information Assurance Forum (SIAF), which was received in December 2012, but was later returned to the organisation. SIAF specialises in information security, and charges public bodies, including Scottish Borders Council, an annual membership fee of £450.

Another supplier called Exactive, whose mission is "to transform the way people work" paid for flights to London (£120), hotel accommodation (£140) and dinner (£80) in a package worth £340. Yet again BTS were the beneficiaries but no details of why the trip was made.

The staff at Newtown St Boswells appear to have been bombarded with at least seven offers from Baillie Gifford, one of the council's four pension fund manager, although all but two appear to have been turned down. The exceptions were a pre-conference dinner at Glengoyne Distillery in March this year,( hospitality valued at £80, according to the register), and dinner at another conference in Dundee in 2013 (£50).

Another staff member in finance received wine worth £60 from the Local Government Chronicle as a thank you for taking part as a speaker in a conference.

A member of the Legal Department enjoyed drinks and dinner at Kelso Races (value £50) courtesy of Walker Love, the company used by the council as Sheriff Officers when court orders are required to pursue council tax debtors.

The register includes an intriguing entry for that £20 box of Thornton's, gifted by Lloyd's TSB to 'Resources' at the council. The manager writes: "This was checked with me before accepting - to return would cost more than chocs and there had been extensive disruption".

And finally, a £65 dinner invitation, also for 'Resources' from Thomas & Adamson, an international construction and property consultancy. The event, the Women in Property annual dinner at Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel warranted a manager's comment: "Good for the council to be represented at such events as a property owner and sends the message that the council takes gender equality issues seriously".


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