Friday 1 March 2013

Audit Office called as MP and AM question council finances

At the end of January, local Plaid Cymru politicians, Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM made some enquiries with the council over the apparent 'advance' payment of fees of £20,000 from the council to the Returning Officer (who is also the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council) for the May 2012 election.

The issue was that the sum had been paid by the council to the Returning Officer in the last financial year, before the election and before the number of contested seats were known.

The Western Mail reported the story; 'Council chief executive's £20,000 election advance could prompt law change'.

Plaid have made further enquiries via the Freedom of Information Act for more details, the full response can be seen here.
It still remains unexplained how the number of contested seats were known within the 2011/12 financial year,
And perhaps the most staggering admission though is that the Council has no record of the dates when the payments were made.

Back in July last year, Plaid accused the council of 'creative accounting' after it failed to distinguish whether advertisements for the council pravda, the Carmarthenshire News were paid for internally or externally. Controversy surrounds the Council rag as it appears much of the so-called advertising revenue which it uses to justify its financial existence actually comes from other council departments and other taxpayer funded bodies.

Plaid Cymru are now reporting their concerns about the council's financial management over the returning officer fees to the Wales Audit Office, and apparently it's causing quite a stir in County Hall as explanations are being demanded.

Here's the Plaid press release;

Audit Office called as politicians question Council’s financial management

Fri. March 1, 2013

Plaid Cymru politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP have contacted the Wales Audit Office expressing their concern that Carmarthenshire County Council cannot properly account for how public money is spent.

In their letter to the Auditor General for Wales, the Party of Wales duo point out conflicting information they have seen from the council as to how much the Chief Executive was paid for duties as the Returning Officer during last year’s local council elections.

Less than a month ago Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards exposed that Carmarthenshire Council’s Chief Executive, Mark James received a £20,000 cash advance for election activities a minimum of five week before the election actually took place. Following this revelation, the Carmarthenshire politicians submitted Freedom of Information requests to all Welsh Councils to find out when council’s paid their Returning Officer. In response, not only did Carmarthenshire Council present conflicting information on the amount of monies paid to the Returning Officer, but also stated it did not hold information on when those payments were made.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said he was gravely concerned that the local authority, which is responsible for taxpayers’ money, does not hold records on what payments it made to the Returning Officer. His constituency colleague and Member of Parliament, Jonathan Edwards, said the discrepancies in the information provided by the council is a perfect example as to why the council should hold this information.
The politicians also raised with the Auditor General for Wales the concerns of county residents as to whether their council tax money was being spent appropriately, citing the recent court case in which the Chief Executive had his costs indemnified to bring a libel case against a county resident.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said:

"When we first raised concerns about the Chief Executive receiving a £20,000 cash advance we were told this was a ‘part payment’. However information received from the Council this week suggests this isn’t the case and the Chief Executive, in his role as Returning Officer, received full payment before the election.
"I’m gravely concerned to have been told the local authority, which is responsible for taxpayers’ money, does not hold information on when it made these election payments to the Returning Officer – especially when I have been provided with differing information, from the authority itself, regarding the amount of monies paid.

"Every Welsh council which has responded to our freedom of information request to date has been able to provide us with the details of when payments were made to their Returning Officer. It is Carmarthenshire Council’s lack of proper financial management, or sheer unwillingness to be transparent, that has left us with no alternative but to contact the Auditor General."

Jonathan Edwards MP added:

"We’ve been provided with different information on what the Returning Officer received for town and community council duties as well as different information on what he received for by-elections during the year. This is of great concern and the true figures need to be established as a matter of urgency.
"It is astonishing to be told that the Council doesn’t hold information on when it made payments to the Chief Executive for his Returning Officer duties. The discrepancies in the information provided is a perfect example as to why the council should hold this information.
"We are talking about taxpayers’ money. Every single penny should be accounted for but it seems Carmarthenshire County Council is unable to do that."
(Link to full article with notes here)

On a seperate issue entirely, I have been informed that the refuse collectors have had their 1.5 hours a week overtime for cleaning the lorries stopped, and the lorries are now being cleaned by a private firm at the cost of £80 per lorry.....


Martin Milan said...

What The Flippety F***?

I can only see two possible ways to interpret this - either:

1/ The council does not follow basic and elementary book-keeping practices, or
2/ The council doesn't give a rat's ass about FOI.

I wonder which it is? Whilst not wishing to preclude "both" of course...

Anonymous said...

I am no fool to believe they don't know when it was paid.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but notice that the following councils responded, promptly, in full to the same FoI request - Bridgend, Wrexham, Flintshire, Ceredigion, Powys, Swansea, Gwynedd, Newport, Denbighshire, Monmouthshire, Conwy.

The following councils say they are 'in process' of providing the information = Torfaen, Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Vale of Glamorgan, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Merthyr Tydfil. Only Rhondda Cynon Taf have so far failed aknolege the request. All the other councils that have responded say that payment to the election returning officer was conducted AFTER the election had taken place. The payment is made once the costs are incurred.

Not only did Carmarthenshire make payment prior to the election taking place but they say "We do not hold information on the precise date payments were made."

All other councils in Wales send a remittance advise with the electronic payment, and the entry appears on their bank statement. On this they conduct a reconciliation. So how did Carmarthenshire make payment? Brown envelope? Briefcase of cash? Multiple payments via a third party? It's also baffling to see how the payment could possibly have been made prior to the election taking place, unless they knew in advance what candidate in each ward would be elected and of course advance knowledge of the result of postal voting, for which there is a specific amount paid for the returning officer to administer.

There may be more to this than a 'missing bank statement' and I also notice that in their FoI response Carmarthenshire refer to 'payments' in the plural. If thay don't know the date or dates, how do they know there was more than one payment?

Tessa said...

Hey - this would explain why we didn't get satisfactory answers to our questions at our inspection visit last summer - just more computer printouts! Maybe they were hoping we could find the answers, then tell the officers WTF the money had gone!