A freedom of information request by the local democracy reporting service revealed that Northumberland County Council CEO Daljit Lally flew to the Middle East seven times between January 2018 and December 2019.
The total cost of the flights – excluding VAT – came to £18,825.87, with the most expensive flight in March 2018 costing the taxpayer an eye-watering £3,792.22
An additional £989.27 was claimed in the 2017/18 financial year for refreshments and hospitality, bringing the total amount claimed by Ms Lally between 2017 and 2020 for foreign travel expenses to £19,815.14.
The FOI request describes the work as “business development” related to the council’s international health consultancy business. It was for Ms Lally’s ancillary work for this business that she made the expenditure claims.
According to the figures obtained, the income received by the council in relation to the international business was £2,894,702.28.
However, the business – known as Northumbria International Alliance – has come under intense scrutiny after the county council’s chief finance (CFO) officer, Jan Willis, uncovered evidence of “unlawful expenditure” related to the business and issued a section 114 notice.
A S114 notice is made by an authority’s CFO if it appears that expenditure in a financial year is likely to exceed the resources (including sums borrowed) available to it to meet that expenditure.
The report by the CFO explained the business was unlawful under the Localism Act 2011, as councils are not allowed to conduct commercial activities and must form a separate company to do so. This was done by the council for the international consultancy work in 2021.
The report also raised concern over an annual £40,000 international allowance paid to Mrs Lally on top of her £100,000-a-year salary. This was also branded unlawful in the report, with claims it had not gone through the proper processes and was not approved by councillors.
Last week, at an explosive extraordinary meeting, councillors agreed to commission a full, independent investigation into the issue. It is understood that Mrs Lally is currently on a period of leave from the council.
She was also heavily criticised in the damning Max Caller report into governance at the authority in the same meeting.
The issue was referenced by former cabinet member for corporate services Nick Oliver during the meeting, but mentioned flights to other locations not included in the FOI results.
Cllr Oliver said: “On the matter of travel expenses associated with this business and who paid them what is indisputable is that there have been lavish bills for flights to Dubai, China and other places with return fares costing as much as £5,000 per person and that these expenses have been posted in the council’s ledgers.”
The FOI request asked for data covering all foreign travel expenses and did not include any information on flights to China or other locations between 2017 and 2020.
The council has confirmed the flight expenses would form part of the investigation.
A council spokesman said: “We will be looking into this as part of the work to follow up on the s114 report.”
Attempts were made to contact Mrs Lally for comment.