CASH-STRAPPED councils in the region have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on gadgets for their employees and politicians, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Data released under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act show local authorities in the North-East and North Yorkshire have invested more than £600,000 on smartphones and tablet computers such as the sought-after Apple iPad.

That includes the initial purchase costs and ongoing expenditure such as bills and line rental.

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More than 2,000 council staff have been given phones at their employer’s expense, with Durham County Council dishing out over 900 handsets to staff and 110 of its 126 councillors.

Earlier this year, Scarborough Borough Council was criticised for buying iPads for all of its 50 members. Now a clearer picture has emerged of what local authorities are spending on gadgets.

Our information indicates that more than 160 council officials in the region have been given iPads or similar tablet computers for work purposes, with dozens given to councillors – the vast majority in Scarborough.

The Northern Echo: Council expenditure on gadgets

More than 2,100 smart phones, bought with public money, are used by council officials, with almost 150 used by councillors.

While the spending uncovered by The Northern Echo amounts to just a fraction of councils’ budgets, it comes amid fears a fresh wave of austerity cutbacks is about to see millions of pounds wiped from key services such as elderly care.

Critics say local authorities splashing out on gadgets for staff and councillors calls into question their moral authority to oversee such cuts.

As the region’s largest councils, Durham and North Yorkshire have issued more phones to their personnel than most.

Durham’s expenditure on smartphones alone accounts for more than half of the spending uncovered by The Northern Echo.

In its response to the FoI request, the council said: “For many officers, especially those who may be called for out-of-hours work, such as emergency services, social workers and other first response professionals, such as streetscene, planners and highway services, the smart phones are an essential and vital part of our communications system.”

The extent of spending is probably greater, as some councils failed to respond to the FoI request in the statutory 28 days, while others argued that to provide the required information would be too much work to avoid incurring a fee.

Jonathan Isaby, political director of pressure group the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: “In order to have the moral authority to oversee necessary cuts in expenditure, councillors and council staff must ensure any spending on themselves is necessary and delivering taxpayer value for money.