External audit report raises series of issues

The Rothbury Parish Council noticeboard in the village. Picture by Jane Coltman
The Rothbury Parish Council noticeboard in the village. Picture by Jane Coltman

A series of issues have been raised in an audit of Rothbury Parish Council, which a long-term critic claims has vindicated his four-year campaign against the authority.

External auditors BDO have published their report on the parish council’s (RPC) accounts for 2014/15 and a number of issues arising have been highlighted.

The matters listed are the clerk’s employment contract; financial regulations and standing orders; quotations; review of internal controls; approval of accounts; agenda items; budget setting; reimbursed expenses; minutes and agendas; and the internal auditor.

For each, there are recommendations as to how the council can rectify the problem or improve its practices.

The report has been delayed by more than a year and the external audit for the 2015/16 financial year is also due.

The auditor makes it clear that she is aware that some of the issues raised from the 2014/15 accounts have been addressed already, but it remains to be seen what conclusions will be drawn about these changes.

RPC has been the subject of an ongoing saga which has seen ‘dissident elector’ Tony Kell repeatedly complain about and criticise the parish council, the councillors, the clerk and how they conduct their business.

The feud ended up in the courtroom in March after Mr Kell appealed a decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office which backed the council in its handling of refused information requests. The tribunal findings, published in July, found in favour of the council.

The decision notice explained that the tribunal’s task was ‘not to make findings as to a long series of factual disputes relating to fractious confrontations’ between Mr Kell and the council, but to decide if the requests for information in question were vexatious.

It added that ‘these findings do not amount to a total exoneration of RPC’ and ‘we accept that its conduct of council affairs was not flawless’.

Nonetheless, Mr Kell was extremely dissatisfied with the outcome and referred to other incidents of ‘establishment denial’.

He also applied for permission to appeal the matter further, but that was refused by the judge earlier this month, as there was no error of law or misunderstanding of evidence.

Now, it is clear that Mr Kell feels that he has been vindicated in his campaign.

This week, he said: “The 2015 external audit reports are scathing. They confirm a lack of the most basic management and accounting controls.

“An open public examination is needed to confirm why the council failed to identify its multiple errors and why the council’s self-appointed internal audit revealed nothing wrong. Procedure exists not as a nicety, but to ensure good governance and protect the public purse.”

“The harassment of not only me but my family has been shameful. If real justice existed in the UK, these people would be permanently debarred from public office.

“The council made false public assurances in 2012. When challenged by external auditor, its action was to publish procedures, but avoid implementing them. As a result, by 2015 many of the same false assurances were still being made”

“I and my family have been pilloried over almost four years, simply for persisting that the council failed to follow good practice, law and its own written procedures. That fact is now effectively confirmed by professional audit.”

He added: “Councillors recently approved £53,000 legal fees in less than nine months from £52,000 annual public taxes, leading to around £20,000 overspend, to avoid confirming two simple facts – failure to investigate any complaint in over three years and failure to confirm the keeper and location of the authorised minute books.

“Parish taxes are intended for parish benefit not to conceal councillors’ inability to follow law and due process.

“Nothing will be resolved which benefits local residents without significant change to the existing culture and clique.”

A statement from Rothbury Parish Council said: ‘As a responsible parish council, we will be considering very carefully the recommendations of the external auditor once we have had a chance to formally discuss the report. We will almost certainly accept all the issues raised, and have already acted upon many of those recommendations.

‘We welcome questions and queries from the public, but as the Information Commission tribunal concluded, we were overwhelmed by the quantity and vexatious nature of those requests. Rothbury is a small parish and it was clear that the number of information requests were disproportionate to the level of spend and activity of the council.

‘Unfortunately, because of the two appeals, we then had to respond to the challenge to our decision to define the complainant as vexatious and this resulted in the expenditure related to the court process. The tribunal strongly found in our favour and we are now attempting to reclaim the majority of those costs.

‘We are clear and the court supports the view that we have never harassed anyone. Our prime concern is to continue to deliver the best outcomes for the public of Rothbury.’