Revealed: Northern Ireland ratepayers pay £3.5m for council mileage
Northern Ireland councils are wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by giving staff over-generous mileage allowances, according to a public spending pressure group.
Research published today by the TaxPayers' Alliance reveals that at least nine of the province's 11 councils are paying a higher mileage rate to staff than that recommended by the Government.
Five years ago HM Revenue and Customs set the approved mileage rate for cars and vans owned by employees and used for business journeys at 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles.
At that time the Department for Communities and Local Government advised councils in England to stop paying above HMRC's approved rate.
However, five years on, at least nine of our local authorities are still paying employees a casual rate of up to 65p per mile - 20p per mile or 45% above the recommended rate - for vehicles above 1200cc.
Nine councils - Antrim and Newtownabbey (£335,786); Belfast (£223,470); Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon (£558,297); Lisburn and Castlereagh (£304,822); Fermanagh and Omagh (£363,835); Derry City and Strabane (£337,211); Newry, Mourne and Down (£363,407); Ards and North Down (£375,633), and Mid Ulster (£456,179) - spent a combined total of £3.31m on mileage expenses in 2015-16.
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council led the way with £558,297 - more than twice the amount handed over by Belfast City Council at £223,470.
In 2016-17 the figure spent on mileage by these nine local authorities leapt to £3.49m, with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon again topping the table at £600,723, and Belfast coming in lowest at £228,636.
Lisburn and Castlereagh Council spent £347,341 during that period, followed by Derry and Strabane with £350,417. Newry, Mourne and Down paid out £359,978, and Fermanagh and Omagh spent £399,616.
Ards and North Down spent £373,385, while Antrim and Newtownabbey paid out £344,870. For Mid Ulster the figure was £489,111.
In total, the nine councils spent over £6.81m on mileage expenses for staff over two years.
No figures were available for Causeway Coast and Glens or Mid and East Antrim Borough Councils at the time of going to press.
TaxPayers' Alliance chief executive John O'Connell said that while high fuel prices and vehicle excise duty made driving "extremely expensive", there was "no excuse for councils to pay more than HMRC's approved rate for mileage".
He added: "It's simply not credible for local authorities to plead poverty and raise council tax while paying over the odds for basic expenses, especially when the Government has been telling them to rein in these payments for the past five years.
"Councils must continue to root out wasteful spending like this so that they can deliver tax cuts for hard-pressed residents."
Councillor Darryn Causby, chairman of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough's governance, policy and resources committee, said he was "shocked" at the amount spent on staff mileage.
"If you compare councils, I would suspect that it is because of the size of the geographical area of the council and the significant rural community we serve," he said.
"Also, we have 1,500 employees on the council, so it would be interesting to see a breakdown of the spend by council departments.
"Some employees, such as dog and litter wardens, would be out and about on a daily basis travelling a significant number of miles."
He said he intended to raise the matter with the council's chief executive.
"I would be minded to want to know a bit more over whether we have given the advice to reduce the mileage due consideration, or whether it has been completely disregarded. I totally understand why questions are being raised, and I am shocked at the figures quoted," Mr Causby added.
Representatives of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon; Belfast City; Lisburn and Castlereagh; Derry City and Strabane; Mid and East Antrim, and Antrim and Newtownabbey Councils said the rates paid were set by the negotiating body for local government staff, the National Joint Council (NJC), in a collective agreement that allowed for the payment of up to 65p per mile in mileage costs.
Belfast City Council said that employees were paid a mileage rate for approved business miles of between 36.9p and 65.0p per mile for the first 8,500 miles, and between 13.7p and 16.4p per mile after 8,500 miles.
Mid Ulster Council said the rate paid to casual users of cars above 1200cc in 2015/16 and 2016/17 was 65p per mile for the first 8500 miles and then 16.4p. It added that "current Mid Ulster District Council mileage allowances for employees are a term and condition of employment which has been carried through from three legacy councils".
Derry City and Strabane District Council disputed the amount the TaxPayers' Alliance said had been claimed by staff, stating that a total of £267,261 had been claimed in 2015/16 and £279,036 in 2016/17.
The NI Local Government Association (Nilga) said it was not aware that HMRC had issued specific "advice to reduce the mileage paid to 45p per mile".
"The amount set by the NJC is determined based on the actual costs of running a vehicle and is set by an independent panel of experts," it added.
"This forms part of a collective agreement with trade unions. The same is the case for the NHS, incidentally.
"The rates set have been the same since 2010, and are guidelines, with some work presently being done to take into account rates for electric cars and changes of this type, mindful that other details like whether the car is essential to the public service or not are all taken into account.
"At all times we seek to apply policies which are fair to employees using their cars for the delivery of public services and to taxpayers, with rates which are independently assured."
No responses had been received from Newry, Mourne and Down; Fermanagh and Omagh and Ards and North Down Councils at the time of going to press.
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council requested that a Freedom of Information enquiry be submitted.