Councillors threatening to quit committee say they are being 'muzzled' over alleged fraud
- Credit: St Albans Council
Conservative councillors are considering quitting an audit committee, complaining that they are being “muzzled” and their decisions are not being properly recorded or acted on.
St Albans councillors complained last week that a report ordered into an alleged fraud had been omitted from the official minutes.
They also raised concerns that an audit of the council’s relationship with the Business Improvement District (BID) was now being blocked for a third time.
Chairman Roger Butterworth said rules demanded audit committees be "independent" and "unbiased", telling last week's meeting that he was "disturbed" by the behaviour he was witnessing.
Lib Dems denied political interference, saying it was the Tories who were trying to “manipulate” the minutes.
The row erupted last week when Cllr Butterworth said the minutes of the previous meeting, in July, were incomplete.
He said the committee had agreed that a report would be produced into an alleged fraud involving building contracts – but the decision had been left out of the minutes.
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When he asked to add it in, Lib Dem councillors blocked him.
One – Allison Wren – said she did not recall the report being ordered.
“We did not agree in any way that there would be any further discussion on it until the matter had been resolved,” she said.
Cllr Butterworth replied: “I beg to differ. I think we did agree that the internal audit team would produce a report, which I believe they are working on.”
He then asked a council officer to confirm.
They officer replied: “We will be producing a report on the lessons learned and it will be coming to the next meeting.”
But all five Lib Dems on the committee voted to block the minutes from being updated, even though three of them – Liz Needham, Clare Julien and Paul De Kort – were not at the meeting they related to.
Cllr Butterworth refused to sign the minutes as an accurate record and Julian Daly, a former audit chairman, told the meeting he was “concerned” and “uncomfortable”.
“I will have to consider my position and I would recommend to my colleagues that they consider whether they bother coming to an audit committee if, at the very beginning of the [political] year, we are being muzzled,” he said.
Tory leader Mary Maynard told Lib Dems: "You seem to be turning this into a political committee, which is extremely distressing because it never has been."
Discussion then turned to an audit of the council’s relationship with the BID.
The July meeting heard that successive audit committees had commissioned audits into the relationship, which officers then cancelled without consulting or informing members.
The BID has told the Herts Ad it “would be happy to have an audit of transactions between the council and BID”.
But councillors discovered in July that it had been blocked again – a decision an officer said had been influenced by the chief executive.
Officers were asked to progress the audit as a matter of urgency.
But at last week’s meeting, when asked for an update, a civil servant said: “We are currently seeking legal advice from the Local Government Association (LGA) about the legalities of internal audit actually auditing that entity.”
When Cllr Butterworth said officers had been asked to audit the council’s financial dealings with the BID, not audit the BID, the officer responded: “I don’t wish to discuss this any further until we have got the advice from the LGA.”
Cllr Daly said he was “confused and concerned” that an audit which councillors had ordered was being blocked, pending legal advice over an audit they had not ordered.
The Herts Ad understands that multiple Conservative members are now considering resigning from the committee.
Lib Dem leader Chris White said the minutes were “put together by a neutral and highly professional officer, whose minutes have always been beyond reproach”.
He said a “formal complaint” would be made about the opposition “attacking the integrity” of an officer.
He added: “It is the Conservatives who are attempting to manipulate matters. I note the childish threats from the Conservatives, who have a history of boycotting council bodies which may not agree with them.”
Cllr Butterworth replied: “I strongly refute that we were manipulating the minutes. The additional paragraphs I sought to be inserted were a fair representation of key points discussed and agreed at the earlier meeting.”