At Wednesday’s extraordinary meeting of Northumberland County Council, members debated a section 114 notice issued after unlawful expenditure was uncovered by the council’s chief finance officer.
The money related to the council’s international health consultancy work as well as a £40,000 annual allowance paid to council chief executive Daljit Lally as an “international allowance” in connection with the work.
Members were told it was a highly unusual step for a local authority to take.
Deputy leader Cllr Richard Wearmouth said: “This is not a course of action that has been taken lightly. The report makes for difficult reading and highlights serious failures in terms of governance over a few years.”
Section 151 officer and director of finance Jan Willis added: “The issue of a section 114 report is a rare occurrence in local government. It is not something that any chief finance officer does lightly.
“The reason it is rare is because in most councils there are processes in place that ensure councils don’t make unlawful decisions and in Northumberland these have failed.”
Members were told that the best estimates for the council’s international business was that it had made a profit of around £800,000 over the years.
The debate came just moments after the council had been criticised by the Max Caller report into governance at the authority.
Cllr Derek Kennedy, leader of the independent group, said: “What a day we’ve had. We have seen this council ripped apart. It is outrageous and embarrassing.
“There needs to be a total reset of this council. We have heard so much on what is going wrong. Officers going their own way and ignoring members of the council, financial records not being kept.”
Other members said they had faced allegations of bullying and other personal attacks when attempting to find out more information about the international business.
Former council leader Peter Jackson revealed: “I have never wavered in my quest to expose the truth. This is despite being subjected to personal attacks.
“I made whistleblowing allegations in 2020, and in my view we have been let down by a cabal of officers acting against the interests of councillors, and the people of Northumberland have been let down.”
Former cabinet member Nick Oliver added: “Good officers raising concerns about this business and other matters have been driven out of the council. The officers, sadly are sometimes referred to as the disappeared, and it should be a source of shame for us all that we did not do more to protect them.
“Their careers and family lives have been turned upside down for doing no more than asking legitimate questions or providing the mildest of challenge.”
Cllr Oliver also doubted that any money had been made by the business and suggested “lavish” sums of money had been spent on flights to locations such as Dubai and China.
Despite the claims made by councillors, Ms Willis had made it clear that the purpose of her report was not to “point fingers” and recommended a full, independent investigation be carried out into the unlawful expenditure.
In a rare show of unity, councillors unanimously agreed to approve the recommendations and proceed with the investigation.