For the past few weeks I've been trying to get a simple, straight answer from the Wales Audit Office as to whether they consider the funding of a counterclaim for libel is good value for money for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer. I am not asking as an interested party but on behalf of Carmarthenshire taxpayers who are constantly being told that severe cuts to frontline services are on the cards, £8.5m of saving must be found this year and, to quote the Chief Executive, the council must 'curb spending or lose our services'.
Naturally, I am not asking them to comment on the specifics of the case, just the use of council funds.
I had initially been told by the local auditor by phone, that they were 'satisfied with the position'. I asked for confirmation in writing and how this 'satisfaction' had been weighed against (amongst other things) the 'strong warning' against such funding issued by the Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant's office. As is usual for such organisations, a simple reply was out of the question when a far more lengthy and bureaucratic path was available, so the local auditor decided that I had asked a freedom of information request and sent it to the WAO.
Several weeks passed and eventually I had a response. Unsurprisingly the WAO told me they didn't hold the information I had requested. The person who did have the information was the local auditor, or to be precise, the Appointed Auditor for Carmarthenshire who delegates case work to the local office, in this case, Carmarthen. So we've gone round in a circle. So surely the local auditor would have known that when he sent my query to the WAO?
I telephoned the man at the WAO for some clarification. I was informed that they had no role in the spending (and securing value for money) by local authorities, the WAO merely oversees the Welsh Government. The Apponted Auditors dealt with local authorities, he said, and acted independently of the WAO, despite being appointed by the Auditor General they are only accountable to him in relation to their code of conduct. So, said I, who are the Appointed Auditors accountable to when it comes to checking whether a local authority is spending our precious cash in the right places? Ah, good question, he said. Hmm.
Conveniently the WAO is not a 'legal entity' in it's own right, and so as a body presumably immune to legal challenge. The Appointed Auditors are not classed as a public body and are therefore exempt from Freedom of Information legislation. My query aside, this is all a bit worrying and the whole system seems to hinge on the integrity and competence of the local authority, and as long as the right boxes are ticked, the local auditors are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds with awkward questions about justifiable expenditure and ethical issues - and if you have concerns about the spending habits of your council (you may remember my recent queries over the council's financial commitment to the evangelical bowling alley), then tough luck. That's if you know the details of their spending habits in the first place; as of course there is no requirement for councils to publish them.
The WAO itself has had it's own fair share of financial hiccups too over the past few years, none of which were ever satisfactorily dealt with. (please use searchbox on the right)
So, back to my query and I pressed the man from the WAO - I asked him to forget that I was involved in this and imagine that I was phoning as a concerned taxpayer from Carmarthenshire - what would they say to me? No answer. I asked whether the Appointed Auditor could, in general terms, determine whether councils were securing good value for the taxpayer; twice he told me that the local auditors couldn't possibly check every transaction made by a council - I agreed with him, of course they couldn't but this, to be fair, is a slightly unique bit of spending.
I said again that all I wanted was a simple statement as to why the auditors believed this was good value for the taxpayer.
Anyway, we'll see if I, or more importantly the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, ever get a straight answer after wading through all this mud.
I have mentioned the WAO quite a lot recently in the wrongly held assumption, that they had the power to hold Carmarthenshire Council to account, clearly, whatever the issue, and despite their 'Making Public Money Count' motto, they don't, I don't think anyone does.
There's only one obvious solution....more bloggers.
(again, please use searchbox for further posts, including here)