COUNCILLORS are helping themselves to free laptops and Blackberry phones – paid for by the taxpayer – while at the same time removing funding from centres which give people without computers their only chance to use the internet.
The New Journal has learned that more than half the councillors at the Town Hall have claimed a laptop, offered as a matter of course to all members when they are elected.
They get the choice of having a traditional desktop PC or a portable computer. There is also the chance to get hold of top-of-the-range mobile phones which run the internet.
But while Camden’s elected representatives are logging onto the web for free, residents who can only use computers in community centres and libraries are facing cuts to a service designed to get more people online.
And with more and more information available over the internet – particularly at Camden Council’s own site where you can do anything from paying tax to checking planning applications – there are fears people will miss out on services.
Funding cuts will be made to UK Online, a project initiated by the government to give users of community centres and libraries the chance to surf the internet – for example, to find out about benefits or search for jobs.
John Boyle, manager of the Shell Centre in Boundary Road, South Hampstead, one of the centres likely to face cuts, said: “I see the importance of these centres to the community on a daily basis. If Camden are serious about engaging with residents using online services they should be supporting this service not cutting it.”
Labour finance spokesman Councillor Theo Blackwell said: “Councillors could justify free broadband for their work, but UK Online is free broadband to help people to find work.”
He said Whitehall was still offering £30million for UK Online projects but the council had not bothered applying for the money.
Alternatively, he suggested the centres could be saved with money from the council’s “recession funds”.
Lib Dem councillor Janet Grauberg, part of the cabinet of councillors who run the Town Hall, said: “Funding from government stopped a few years ago. We carried on funding but took the decision last year to reduce it for this year.
“We have expanded services in libraries and are looking at centres where there is high usage and we will not remove funding from them. If money grew on trees it would be something I’d like to see carry on being funded, but we have to look at where resources are best spent.”
A council press official said: “Currently, 34 members have taken up the council’s offer of a computer for their use. Of these, 31 members have laptops and three members have desktop machine. Following the end of their elected term the kit will be returned to the council.”
A public meeting on the future of Camden’s UK Online centres will be held at the Town Hall from 7pm on Monday.