Labour backtracks over opposition to council wine tasting trip

Delaney Vineyards in Texas

Delaney Vineyards in Texas

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FIVE years is a long time in politics, especially when a wine festival is involved.

Back in 2007, Labour councillors in West Lothian led the criticism of the then SNP administration’s “junket” trip to Grapefest in Texas. Now Labour is in power, they have voted to take up the invitation themselves.

The delegation can look forward to relaxing on the “champagne terrace” taking part in wine tasting or even competing for the “purple foot” as part of a grape-stomping competition in the city of Grapevine.

The local authority has agreed to pay for councillors’ flights, which can cost in excess of £750 each, with public cash. And there are even plans to take a group of senior school pupils on the jaunt, although the council points out this will only be to take part in “educational and sporting activities”.

While it is not yet known how many people will be going, the council has defended the trip, saying it is part of a successful twinning agreement and will build strong economic, tourism and education links with one of the largest economies in the world.

Alan Gifford, vice-chair of Longridge Community Council, said he was “astounded” that the flights would be paid for by the public.

“It’s very difficult for us to get funding for anything, we’ve been trying to get a bottle bank for over a year,” he said. “It just sounds like a jolly.”

Kim Vance, chair of Muriston Community Council, added: “In this economic climate they shouldn’t be doing this. I’d rather it was spent on the environment or charity groups.”

The Labour group, while in opposition, criticised the SNP for making the first trip five years ago. Graeme Morrice, who was then leader of the Labour group, said at the time “there is really no way to dress this up as anything more than what it is, which is a junket”.

However, yesterday the new Labour administration approved its own visit at a meeting of the council.

The SNP group leader on West Lothian Council, Peter Johnston, said: “The Labour group previously described it as a junket. I wasn’t sure the road to Texas passed through Damascus.

“We continue to be supportive of the Texas link. But we recognise in tough times the delegation has to be at a minimum.”

William Tate, mayor of Grapevine, Texas, said in his invitation that the trip in September would involve relaxation on a “champagne terrace”, live music and wine tasting in the city, which is 20 miles from Dallas.

Since the twinning agreement was signed in June 2008, teachers and pupils have made visits to Texas, while West Lothian College has a culinary exchange with Grapevine involving hospitality students. An annual golf challenge is also contested between West Lothian and Grapevine, with hosts alternating each year.

A West Lothian Council spokesman said the size of the delegation and cost of the trip was yet to be finalised.

He added: “As always, the council will seek to minimise any costs associated with the proposed visit. With the exception of flight costs, other costs would be met by the hosts, including accommodation and meals.”