Labour council leader in Northumberland claims he was 'misled' over unlawful exit payments

A political row has broken out in Northumberland over the long-running saga around unlawful exit payments totalling more than £1 million.
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The leader of Northumberland Labour, Cllr Scott Dickinson has claimed he was ‘misled’ over the investigation into the series of big-money payments at Northumberland County Council (NCC) between 2017 and 2022.

The deputy leader of the county council, Cllr Richard Wearmouth, the deputy leader of the Conservative-led council, hit back at Coun Dickinson’s comments and claimed the leader of the opposition was entitled to ask for clarity, but had not done so.

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In November, it was revealed that the county council had u-turned on a decision not to refer the payments to Northumbria Police. In July, councillors on the audit committee were told that despite the fact the payments were made without proper authorisation there was no evidence of criminal activity.

Scott Dickinson, leader of Northumberland County Council Labour Group (Druridge Bay).Scott Dickinson, leader of Northumberland County Council Labour Group (Druridge Bay).
Scott Dickinson, leader of Northumberland County Council Labour Group (Druridge Bay).

The council has repeatedly insisted up to now that while the payments were ‘unlawful’, they were not ‘illegal’ – in that they would have been lawful had they gone through proper processes.

At that time, Labour councillors said it was time to move forward after the council’s finance chief, Jan Willis, said there was ‘no basis’ to make a formal referral to the police.

However, in November it was revealed that the matter would be referred to the police after all. In a pre-prepared statement, the council’s top legal officer Stephen Gerrard said ‘further inquiries’ had been carried out and that he would be sending a file to police after all.

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Ms Willis had previously said that investigations were continuing and if any further information came to light that necessitated police involvement, she would not hesitate in referring it to them.

Mr Gerrard and Northumbria Police have since confirmed the file was sent in late January.

The council’s Labour opposition group say they are now pressing for answers on the issue.

Cllr Dickinson said: “I was briefed of the July position. I was confident that the process was thorough and officers had reported findings to the Audit Committee. I was advised that a line must be drawn.

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“Nobody has explained to me why or what evidence has come to light which changes the July position. Residents have watched scandal after scandal at the council in recent years – how can we have confidence?”

The Labour leader was referring to the controversies at the council around the Max Caller report into governance at the local authority, as well as the issue of a section 114 notice because of unlawful expenditure related to the council’s international health consultancy business.

Coun Dickinson also raised concerns about comments made by former council leader Peter Jackson. In October, Coun Jackson who led the council from 2017 until 2020, said at the audit committee in October 2023 that in his view there had been ‘quite a lot of illegal activity’ at the council.

His successor as leader, Glen Sanderson, has previously said that issues arose ‘under previous management’ and that he had ‘strong views’ about being excluded from discussions on the payments.

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Cllr Dickinson continued: “I raised concerns in September with Cllr Sanderson about accusations being made by his colleagues in public forum with no evidence. Since then, no communication has been received about what is now going on and I read in the newspapers and see on the news that a complete u-turn has taken place and police involvement has been chosen.

“Maybe this needs an independent look, an open book, and a non-connected eye. Until all of this is properly resolved residents have no confidence, I have been misled and no councillor can possibly think they have the latest version of the story.”

Cllr Wearmouth said: “We are often left somewhat bemused by Cllr Dickinson’s comments. The matter of the police referral regarding historic officer conduct at NCC was discussed in audit meetings before and after Christmas and reported in the press.

“Labour members were present in that audit meeting and could ask questions however they did not as the information was I assume very clear. Cllr Dickinson is personally offered regular meetings with officers, receives updates written and verbal, can ask questions or for clarifications at any time on any subject.

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“He has made no request for any information or clarification on this subject whatsoever so far as I am aware. He may feel it’s most efficient for us to receive his questions through telepathy or via press releases, I can’t help but feel an email or phone call would suffice.”