Ex-leader claims there has been 'quite a lot of illegal activity' at Northumberland County Council

The former leader of Northumberland County Council has called for an investigation into the dismissal of top officers and says he believes the council may have acted illegally.
Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Coun Peter Jackson made the comments at an audit committee meeting. The ex-council boss, who lost a vote of confidence in his leadership in 2020, was unhappy that previous calls for an investigation into dismissals had not moved forward.

It followed a discussion on a separate investigation into a series of exit payments made by the council between 2017 and 2022 at the commitee’s last meeting in July. Despite the fact seven payments were deemed unlawful by the investigation, Coun Jackson warned that he believed the problem ran deeper, calling for further investigation into the dismissal of statutory officers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, at Wednesday’s meeting no such investigation featured on the committee’s action log. The log details ongoing work that will be presented to the committee.

Former Northumberland County Council Leader Peter Jackson. Photo: NCJ Media/Iain Buist.Former Northumberland County Council Leader Peter Jackson. Photo: NCJ Media/Iain Buist.
Former Northumberland County Council Leader Peter Jackson. Photo: NCJ Media/Iain Buist.

Coun Jackson said: “There are things that I have been asking for and I had expected to see on the action list rather than just forgotten about. I asked for an investigation into dismissals of statutory officers.

“There is a lot of legislation around that, and I think it is important that the committee knows how the council acted with regards to that legislation. My view is that there has been quite a lot of illegal activity.

“Could I propose that we put that on the action list so we can get some details?”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The council’s top legal officer, Stephen Gerrard, warned Coun Jackson about his language. The monitoring officer said: “I must counsel caution with the language used.”

Referring to the previous investigation, Mr Gerrard added: “We did not use the term illegal, nor do I now. Members do so at their own risk.”

Coun Jackson retorted: “You are entitled to your own view and I am entitled to mine.”

Labour’s Coun Lynne Grimshaw said she hoped the council had moved on from past issues following the Max Caller report, as well as finance chief Jan Willis’ decision not to issue a section 114 notice with regards to the unlawful exit payments.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The finance officer took legal advice at the time, which concluded there were not “good prospects” of recovering any of the money paid out.

Coun Grimshaw said: “I thought all of this was put behind us and we were moving forward. I can’t agree with looking back in the past.”

But Conservative members of the committee disagreed.

Coun Trevor Cessford said: “What is the point of an audit committee if we find something you wish to query and you just say ‘no, that’s looking in the past’. We’re here to audit things that have happened in the past.

“Without answers, nothing is clear. Just brushing them under the carpet and saying let sleeping dogs lie is not the answer.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Coun Nick Oliver, the council’s former cabinet member for corporate services under Coun Jackson, called for a referral to the police.

He said: “This is about accountability. We have learnt something, but not everything, about where processes failed – but we have no accountability.

“We know there was more than £1 million in unlawful payments. There are laws about the misuse of public funds. If somebody has broken those laws, they’re illegal.

“Surely that could go to the police? They could get to the bottom of this. We have heard so much, there must be justification to do this.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Other councils have made referrals for much less than has happened here. If we don’t, I would like a report explaining why.

“We have had significant reports and we have had absolute transparency, but it has stopped short of accountability.”

Ms Willis told the committee she is currently investigating reports of unlawful activity and did not rule out a possible referral to Northumbria Police. Ms Willis also said she was “taking further legal advice” on the matter.

She said: “When I have fully considered these matters, I will decide whether a referral to the police is needed. I am continuing to look into these issues.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“If and when sufficient evidence comes back to make a referral, that is what I would do. It is not something that we would do lightly.

“The difficulty we have had all this time is the absence of information and the absence of evidence.”

Statutory officers at local authorities include the head of paid service, the monitoring officer and the section 151 officer. Councils are required by law to have these positions filled.

The decision to dismiss any statutory officer must be taken by full council. Furthermore, before that decision is made, at least two independent persons must be invited to be members of a panel, who make recommendations that council must take into account before making a final decision.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It is not known which dismissals Coun Jackson is referring to, with the councillor prevented from identifying those involved for legal reasons.

Speaking after the meeting, deputy leader Coun Richard Wearmouth, who was in attendance, said ‘no stone would be unturned’ in the investigation.

Coun Wearmouth said: “At the meeting of the audit committee, it was identified by the council’s chief finance officer that the council, having identified unlawful activity at the council previously, was duty bound to highlight this at the earliest possible juncture.

“That came earlier in the year in the form of reports that are in the public domain. At the time of those reports, the council did not have any evidence to suggest any criminal activity and the reports stated that position.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Nonetheless, as was stated at the meeting of the audit committee on Wednesday, the council has continued to investigate the activities surrounding the unlawful payments – as would be expected by Northumberland’s residents. No stone will be left unturned to establish the facts available to us.

“Only that way can we take any action that might be necessary, including any potential for referrals to outside agencies.”