Monday 11 March 2013

Wales Audit Office - Faith restored?

The recent Wales Audit Office report into the goings on at Caerphilly council (WAO pdf report here, and BBC article here) made me wonder whether the WAO are actually able and determined enough to act independently. Independent of whom, I hear you ask. Well, over the years I have had some correspondence with the body and indeed a couple of meetings relating to a variety of concerns and my perception, rightly or wrongly, is that they appear to be compliant and subservient to the client, in this case Carmarthenshire Council, to the detriment, in my opinion, of their independent integrity.

To give some examples, a few years ago I raised various concerns with the WAO, the subject matter is irrelevant here but can be found in the earlier sections of this blog. The questions I posed required the WAO to seek responses from the council, the WAO then duly formulated their replies. Before sending me their replies, however, they sent every letter in a draft form to the council for their comments, editing, additions and approval. The council duly obliged. On one occasion a more senior WAO officer had recommended that two pieces of important information should be disclosed to me. The council decided that this was not going to happen; one reason they gave was that much would be made of it on 'blog sites'. The WAO complied.

To any lay person, this was not the actions of an independent body, the WAO should never have done this. They should have asked for information and written their response to me, not passed it by County Hall for approval. More recent enquiries have also read suspiciously like the missives from County Hall too.

Another occasion involved an investigation into Carmarthenshire's planning department, again it was a few years ago. This had been called for by many including political representatives as well as members of the public. This prompted the WAO to carry out a general review (which was due anyway) and to look into numerous complaints; members of the public had been asked to submit their concerns about any perceived irregularities/inconsistencies etc they had encountered.

What actually happened was that the investigatory element was mysteriously dropped  and we were left, eventually, with a pointless appraisal of the council's 'performance targets'. The MP at the time urged the WAO to continue their investigation but it was to no avail. It then transpired that the reason the investigation was dropped was due to pressure from the council, who had persuaded the WAO to back down.

The WAO itself has been the subject of, shall we say, management issues for some years but perhaps it is starting to show that it actually has teeth with local authorities. The Caerphilly nonsense has provided some evidence at least that the culture illustrated above may have changed for the better, it remains to be seen, in light of recent complaints, whether this change has spread further west. The public need to have confidence that the organisation is a public interest watchdog which will independently investigate the governance, procedures and financial management of our local authorities. When and if it needs to, of course.

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