Tuesday 31 July 2012

Council Accounts...and the value of Freedom of Information

Today was the day that several of us ventured into County Hall today to view the accounts. It was never going to be straightforward and it certainly wasn't. I had forwarded, in advance, a list of specific areas we wished to view only to be told on Friday that it would not be possible to supply the requested details.

On arrival a friendly officer had clearly drawn the short straw and was tasked with guiding us through the mire. It soon became clear that to see the details we had initially requested was going to be a problem with the information provided. It seemed that anything connected with individual projects, particularly controversial ones, didn't appear to exist on the accounts, well not in any identifiable form, in fact nothing much was in identifiable form at all. Could we have the purchase ledgers, or a simple tot up of total spends on selected areas, one of our number asked? The helpful officer went off to ask his boss, no we couldn't, and we couldn't have it 'electronically' either "....we don't know where it might end up". Not for the first time he whispered that very few people inspect the accounts these days, everyone uses Freedom of Information. I am not surprised.

I also find it very unlikely that the details of the areas requested could not have been provided, probably at the touch of a button. In fact, the helpful officer did illustrate exactly how easy this would have been by giving us an immediate printout of consultancy fees associated with the Eastgate development in Llanelli, £1.5m for 2011/12 in case you're interested. Another list was provided for consultants fees which amounted to £157,000 but oddly this didn't include the Eastgate consultants, nor the £9,000 for a 'retail critique' provided by Nathaniel Lichfield Partnership. The total bill for consultancies remains unknown, scattered to the four corners of the accounts. Clearly their software was searchable so why the smoke and mirrors were necessary I don't know.

One area of interest was the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News, this was unidentifiable and buried somewhere deep within the press/comms section, when I got home the BBC had provided the information anyway with the publication of a Welsh Government report on the whole subject (more fence sitting by the sound of it), it costs £138,000 a year offset, apparently, by advertising revenue of £108,000. As I have said previously, nearly all this 'advertising revenue' comes from other council departments and other public bodies such as Dyfed Powys Police.

On the same subject we'd asked for details of SirGarPR the council's commercially branded 'professional PR agency' which apparently deals with every PR whim of the council, police, health board etc etc and any approved 'partner organisation' which may require it's services. Never heard of it, said the helpful officer. Entries such as 'birthday presents and gifts' were again unidentifiable, we must assume these were for children in care or something similar and not a set of golf clubs for some officer's special day.

The upshot of the whole exercise was that FoI requests are a much better way of extracting (or trying to extract) the information we wanted, so apologies in advance to the FoI officer as there will be several on their way in the near future. The other option of course would be for the council to publish all the transaction and spending details online, something councils all over the UK have managed to do quite easily, even a couple in Wales. Somehow, I don't think it'll ever happen in Carmarthenshire. Even the entries of election expenses failed to reveal the £20,000 of Returning Officer fees included, so they say, with the Chief Executive's salary. 
So, in Carmarthenshire, FoI is all we've got.

In a few weeks, the Wales Audit Office will sign off the accounts and they, as we all have to, will trust that it's all present and correct and the right boxes are ticked. The accounts are presented in a way which defies members of the public from making any objections to the external auditors; to extract the invoices, receipts and transaction details would take most people, even if they managed to overcome the well placed obstacles, weeks and probably take them well beyond the allotted period for public inspection.

There was a large whiteboard in the room we were in and several of us were tempted to leave some constructive suggestions to assist the council in their future accounting procedures, but we didn't. 

Back to FoI's it is then.


Mr Reasonable said...

Crumbs, and I thought things in Barnet were bad! I think that Local Authorities need to realise that the tide is turning. Engaged and interested citizens are no longer willing to accept what they are told without question. Good luck in your campaign!

Cneifiwr said...

It will be a disgrace if the WAO signs this off. There is clearly "political" accounting going on with the newspaper, and if they are capable of doing that with the newspaper, what is to stop them from similar imaginative accounting when it comes to other pet projects.

What faith can the public have in accounts like this?

Nospin said...

The EU auditors have consistently refused to sign off the EU budget because they cannot identify and trace expenditures/revenue.

For exactly the same reason WAO should do the same and watch to see what happens.

Anonymous said...

"Bullshit Baffles Brains" as the saying goes. Never truer than our experience yesterday. Impossible to find, or be given, the stuff we really wanted. Still, it was a jolly little team of us, so a pleasant enough day!

caebrwyn said...

Besides anything else which may be uncovered, the creative accounting for the 'Carmarthenshire News' warrants an objection to the Wales Audit Office. Whether they'll take any notice is another thing.

Anonymous said...

The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy. ~Woodrow Wilson