Million pound contract between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd for ISUS scheme was never signed
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In my previous post on a Freedom of Information Act request I made to Wirral Council I stated that it would be one of a series of blog posts on interrelated topics, this is the second on audit rights.
Each year (this year it was from 15th July to the 9th August as you can read from this notice published on Wirral Council’s website), anybody can inspect the accounts for Wirral Council for the previous financial year and any books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts. This is a right the public have enshrined in legislation. If this person is also someone who can vote in the Wirral area they also have a right to make objections to the auditor (which in Wirral Council’s case is Grant Thornton UK LLP (previously it was the Audit Commission)).
One of the areas I was interested in is to do with Nigel Hobro’s question to Cllr Phil Davies at the last Council meeting and the Grant Thornton report into the Business Investment Grants program. The end of Cllr Phil Davies’ answer to Mr. Hobro was “Errm however if it turns out that err others have been affected similarly since the report came to us I’m happy to ensure they’re properly investigated and indeed if there are any further evidence of wrongdoing or the irregularities of accountancy methods brought to my attention, then errm I am errm willing and indeed I make a commitment to refer those to others.”
On the 17th July I requested the following (using the above audit rights) “I’d also be interested to see and have a copy of any contract Wirral Council has with Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd” and on Tuesday afternoon (20th August) I was invited along to receive it (I’ve since scanned in and links to all of it are at the start of this blog post). It is for the ISUS (Intensive Startup Scheme) side of the business grants program and covers “awareness and development workshops”, monitoring the businesses that receive grants for three years after they receive grants at at least ten points over that three years and for “provision of specialist post start and aftercare adviser support”. Basically all pretty important things for Wirral Council to prove value for money for the taxpayer for these grants.
The contract states just under a million pounds of taxpayer’s money is involved and as a lot of records would rest with Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd requires them to supply information to do with the project including invoices, certificates, vouchers, books and records if required as well as keeping copies of documentation (and make them available for inspection) for seven years after the grants are awarded.
Section seventeen of the contract allows Wirral Council to vary the amount of grant payable, suspend payment of grant, withhold payment of grant or require Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd to repay some or all of the grant if the terms and conditions are breached at any time before three years after Wirral Council has last paid them the grant. It also requires Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd to if required to pay back money to Wirral Council to do so within fourteen days, otherwise interest at 3% above the base lending rate of NATWEST Bank plc will be charged.
However the most interesting bit of the contract is page ten. It’s not signed by Wirral Council or Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd. However invoices from Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd were paid and according to this Freedom of Information Act request Wirral Council also used Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd to produce business plans for organisations wanting to take over Council assets as part of the Community Asset Transfer program (in the request’s case New Brighton Community Centre).
In that FOI request the Council admits “there was no contract with Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd” and the fact that the one drafted between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd for the ISUS project (which according to the copy I’ve been given wasn’t signed by either party) how can Wirral Council prove it got value for money both to the public (and its auditor)?
Isn’t actually getting a signed contract in place, before you make any payments the kind of basic good governance that Wirral residents should expect from Wirral Council?
Is Cllr Davies’ commitment if he knows of “further wrongdoing” or “irregularities of accountancy methods” to “refer these to others” going to help matters? Referring the whistleblower’s concerns to Grant Thornton and Merseyside Police allowed Wirral Council to draw a veil over the matter and claim exemptions to legitimate questions asked by the public through Freedom of Information Act requests. Councillor Phil Davies is the Cabinet Member for Finance, he’s the elected politician at Wirral Council with democratic accountability to the public for financial matters. I clearly remember Cllr Davies saying last year that when he became leader that there would be more openness and transparency, not less.
Unless politicians (of all political persuasions) are willing to persistently ask difficult questions of senior officers at Wirral Council and put them on the spot during public meetings, instead preferring to be seen to be doing something by requesting reports (there’s the recent example of the case of the Grant Thornton report into the BIG scheme which was never published in full) I fear that all the talk about improved corporate governance and glowing peer reviews at Wirral Council won’t be believed by the public.
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