Campaigners have criticised East Sussex County Council for its ‘unnecessary’ spending on security personnel, following Freedom of Information (FOI) disclosures.

In July, environmental campaigners from Divest East Sussex — a group calling for the East Sussex Pension Fund to do away with its investments in the fossil fuel industry — submitted FOI requests asking how much the council had spent on external security staff on seven dates this year.

Through disclosures, the council has now revealed how much it spent on five of those dates, with a total figure in excess of £25,000 before VAT. The campaigners say this level of spending is “unnecessary”, although the county council has defended its decision citing a disruptive incident last year.

A spokesperson for Divest East Sussex said:

“After initially refusing our request on various bogus grounds, ESCC has now come (partially) clean on this issue. 

“Divest East Sussex (DES) has been organising events at County Hall for well over seven years now. People who attend these events are exercising their legitimate right to peaceful protest. 

“Nobody attending a DES event — or, to our knowledge, any other climate protest at County Hall — has ever been arrested for, or charged with, any offence whatsoever. 

“ESCC should stop wasting public money to ‘protect itself’ from email questions, petition hand-ins and fasters and instead do the prudent, the responsible and the right thing and make a public commitment to stop investing in the giant fossil fuel companies that are driving the climate crisis.”

The FOI disclosures — seen by the LDRS — give figures for the council’s spending on security personnel for five dates in 2023. These were: £2,652.40 for 20 security staff on February 7th; £5,304.80 for 40 security staff on March 21st; £5,928.00 for 40 security staff on May 9th; £5,631.60 for 40 security staff on July 20; and £5,631.60 for an undisclosed number of security staff on July 18th. 

All these figures were the fees before VAT, meaning the full figure will be higher. DES say they believe the council will have spent more still, as security staff were present at other events not covered by the FOI request.

This level of spending has also come in for criticism from the council’s Liberal Democrat group, following publication of the FOI disclosures.

Cllr Steve Murphy, Lib Dem councillor for Hailsham Market, said:

“This is a scandalous waste of money, particularly given the almost £30 million of cuts we will have to find in the next financial year on top of around £138 million that has already been taken from the county council’s budget.

“I have asked about the amount being spent on security staff on several occasions and pointed out that at some meetings, security staff have either outnumbered members of the public, or have been present, for example at cabinet meetings, when no members of the public have even been in attendance. 

“At one Lead Member for Transport meeting, there were five children under 10 with three parents and eight security guards. Conservative county councillors are clearly more afraid of children than of getting on with the job of providing them with a safe route to school. 

“It’s time to stop this nonsensical waste of money and for Conservative councillors to engage with the public rather than trying to shut them out.”

The county council has defended its spending on security staff, however, citing the disruption of a cabinet meeting held on July 19th 2022. 

An ESCC spokesperson said:

“The county council respects the rights of those who wish to peacefully protest. However, from experience, we are aware that alongside those who want to exercise their right to peacefully protest there may be those who wish to disrupt proceedings.

“Following an incident last year when protestors gained access to non-public areas of the building and the police had to be called when they refused to leave, the decision was taken to increase the security presence at County Hall for some meetings as a precaution to ensure everyone’s safety. We are pleased that there have not been any arrests and we continue to keep arrangements under review.”

Although the precise events of the July 19th disruption remain contested, it is common ground that the meeting was suspended after protesters began shouting out from the public gallery. 

After this, it was said cabinet members left the council chamber and were followed by a group of protestors into a non-public area of County Hall in Lewes. 

Councillors said protestors had been ‘aggressive’, with both staff and cabinet members left feeling ‘under threat’. They were said to have locked themselves within private offices due to fears for their own safety.

The protesters — who identified themselves as activists from Extinction Rebellion — disputed this saying the protest, while intended to be disruptive, was also non-violent. 

Police were called to the scene after this initial incident and activists were eventually persuaded to return to a public part of the building. While the council meeting resumed after this, the activists continued to occupy part of the building for several more hours, before being carried out by council-employed security staff.