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Posted by: John Brace | 7th July 2014

5 questions for Wirral Council’s auditors

5 questions for Wirral Council’s auditors

                                  

Dear Mike Thomas (Grant Thornton),

I am writing to you in your capacity as the auditor for Wirral Council.

Last Friday I received a series of emails from Wirral Council’s Head of Legal and Member Services Surjit Tour about a comment left by an individual on a blog I write about Wirral Council. The comment made was about Graham Burgess (Wirral Council’s Chief Executive) and was in relation to his invitation to some Wirral Council councillors offering them tickets to the Open Golf Championship.

The first email from Mr. Tour contained the lines “This is clearly a serious matter and I formally request that you immediately remove the email and the associated commentary concerning this subject matter from your blog.

The Council would prefer to avoid taking action in respect of this entry; however, I must put you on notice that the Council will have little alternative but to consider alternative action should you refuse or fail to remove this entry from your blog forthwith.”

It transpired later that the email was genuine (despite Mr. Surjit Tour first claiming it wasn’t).

The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004 prevent local authorities providing insurance or indemnities to officers (or councillors) to start libel cases. However in this case Wirral Council’s Head of Legal and Member Services seemed to be making a threat of exactly that on behalf of Wirral Council’s Chief Executive Graham Burgess.

Other people have noticed comments about Wirral Council officers have disappeared from the local newspaper website (Wirral Globe), therefore I would like you to investigate and respond to the following questions please:

1. Has Wirral Council ever sued any individual or organisation since The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004 came into effect on the 23rd November 2004?

2. Why are the resources of the authority being used to make such threats when Wirral Council is barred in law from starting such a claim in the courts?

3. Is there currently any indemnity or insurance provided to officers within the terms of The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004 and if so which officers does this cover and at what cost (or approximate cost)?

4. If there is any indemnity or insurance provided to officers (or councillors) has this been agreed by councillors and if so when?

5. How many times over the last 12 months have the media (whether print, broadcast or online) received communications from Wirral Council threatening legal action unless they remove content?

Yours sincerely,

John Brace

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Responses

  1. Our council, Keighley, has recently paid a bill of £912 on behalf of a member of staff who started legal action against a third party. Her action was taken in Nov 2013 and was paid five months later by the council, just prior to her leaving. There is no record in any minute of this payment being agreed or even mentioned. A number of people raised concerns and an internal investigation took place, I asked to see the report and got this response from the mayor

    “My investigation into the circumstances raised in the Finance & Audit Committee meeting of 28th May is not in the public domain. I delivered a verbal report of the investigation at the Finance & Audit Committee meeting of 11th June when the Committee resolved to remove the Press & Public temporarily because of the confidential nature of the business about to be transacted. The Committee resolution concluding the debate has been recorded in the minutes of the meeting.”

    The above minute reads that it was resolved that the cheque was a legitimate council expense.

    Given that this has been paid from the public purse, of which I am a stakeholder (like the rest of the precept payers),I should be entitled to see the report at the very least! I certainly disagree that this was a legitimate council expense.

    Keighley Town Council is currently under investigation by its External Auditors for its accounts 2012/13 and more objections have been made relating to the following year 2013/14, so there are now two sets of accounts that are still waiting to be signed off by the External auditors

    I also have had threats of legal action from the council and individual members

    • I know in Wales, the Welsh Audit Office issued a public interest report stating that they deemed indemnifying a Chief Executive of Carmarthernshire Council in a libel counterclaim to be unlawful. The report itself linked to from that page goes into the detail as to why.

      I know there’s a period each year during the audit when local council taxpayers can see the invoices etc of a local council, although I’m not sure if it applies to parish councils. Certainly it’s something you could ask or query the auditor for Keighley Council about, if you wanted to make an objection or ask the auditor to issue a public interest report on.

      I’m a bit hazy as to which bits of legislations apply equally to district councils (like the one I write about) and parish councils and which only apply to one. These are things the auditor for Keighley is bound to know about though.


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