Labour Heavyweights Strike Back?

“Revenge is a dish best served cold”.

The first item on the Audit Committee Agenda should have been named “Revenge & Retribution” as a new chairman had to be elected for the year. I had been privileged to hold this post for the past two years, courtesy of Labour. Suddenly all that was about to change. Weeks ago, a Cllr shocked me rigid by asking: “Did you know you’re going to be sacked as chair of Audit?” He even named my successor.

What had I done to offend my former patrons? Was it because I could not recommend to full Council that the annual statement of accounts had been thoroughly scrutinised way back last September? We had examined this huge Statement of Accounts in June & then saw the papers when they arrived late for the September 2013 Committee I told my Tory group I was worried as the Audit Committee had not been given the time allowed to scrutinise the annual statement of accounts &, thus, I was not willing to ask full Council to accept them. I was unanimously advised to defer the meeting & as chair I was allowed to do so. The power of a Committee chair seemed clear. I knew it was a brave thing to do but Audit Committee’s role to scrutinise & recommend was clear. Armed with the rule book, I told my Audit colleagues I was adjourning the meeting as the 5 day rule to read our papers had been ignored. The legal officer knocked me sideways by putting a totally different slant on the rule book & gave me no power to defer. I could not defend my position. One nil to legal officer!

The Audit Committee made a decision ages ago to allow 5 days between getting Committee papers & the day the Committee sat. That became our policy. The Audit Committee had to meet on the morning of 25th September with full council meeting in the afternoon. Exactly the same tight time scale was imposed last year & to repeat tight timing again concerned me. Opening the 25th September meeting, I explained my difficulty over lack of scrutiny time. My concerns fell on deaf ears. No adjournment was going to be allowed. Former chair was having none of it. I apologised to the assembled company for not being able to chair it & walked out. Cllr Roberts proposed that the Committee voted for another chair as I was leaving. I scuttled to the Members room to get over the shock. Seeing I was upset, a members service lady offered sympathy. I tearfully explained what had happened. “You are too principled” was her reply.

That afternoon Cllr Woolley, as stand-in Chair assured Council that Audit Committee was fully satisfied with the Statements of Accounts which were accepted without further ado. Had my stubbornness of 25th September, 2013, sealed my fate?

Perhaps my doggedness to press for the truth of the demise of AD Waste, had done for me; Flintshire’s arms length rubbish collection service. We had been told that its official auditors rarely received company accounts, & when they did they could not be signed off. The company was brought in house around 2010. The financial implications were enormous. The Audit Committee asked for information which was not forthcoming. The “cop out” excuse of “commercial confidentiality” was the reason we were kept in the dark ! The company then went into receivership. For 4 years, vital financial information about AD Waste was withheld on the instructions of the former Monitoring Officer. Company accounts were never part of Flintshire’s yearly accounts & most Audit Members knew something was wrong but were powerless to act.

After prolonged skirmishing with the Chief Executive, some information was grudgingly released. Flintshire owned the company and should have been able to call the shots. Welsh Audit Office agreed that the bringing “in house” process should have been fully shared with Audit Committee.

Directors settlements were never fully disclosed & the laborious receivership process prevented any more information disclosures. Interestingly, AD Waste had a Labour councillor on the Board. He saw or heard no evil & assured members we were getting a magnificent asset! AD Waste was finally wound up on 13th September 2013. Our Statement of Accounts were hastily re-written to include this development. The AD Waste saga showed the impotence of the Audit Committee . So much for our detailed job description & incredibly strong powers! Had my delving upset Labour? Who knows?

Back to the latest Audit Committee on 25th June. Cllr Ian Roberts glided up for coffee outside the Committee room. “You’re not speaking to me Ian?” I enquired. “I don’t think you love me any more!” His expression remained inscrutable. “The Labour heavy weight tag didn’t help”, he replied coldly. “When did I say that?” I responded. “Your blog!” was the answer. “I have’t blogged for ages,” I rejourned. Inscrutable one then told me the date. October last year and gave me chapter and verse. The blog had clearly not amused.

“Well, you are a senior Labour & you’re not exactly a 7 stone weakling”, I chirpily responded. A brave Audit member buddy proposed me as chair but the “king maker,’ had everything under control. The new chair offered a word of praise to me & the meeting rolled smoothly on. New chair has already proved his competence and will be an asset. If he can liven things up, as Audit can be boring, that will fun. If he treats us to his fabled ‘Australian Vernacular’ display, regularly admired around his old stomping ground of Shordley Hall, in Hope; that should liven things up considerably.

Was my demise anything to do with complaining about offensive & totally untrue allegations against me by Cllr. Bithell at a planning meeting? He accused me of conniving with a planning applicant, actually present at the meeting; to get his plan passed by Committee. Cllr Bithell then suggested that my “attack” on officers was such that I should be reported to the Standards Committee. These nasty comments were far removed from acceptable banter & political point scoring as they were offensive, gratuitous & untrue. The chamber was packed with press & public.

Cllr Bithell is a long served member of Council & Planning Committee, & as a lay preacher sometimes leads us in prayer at Council meetings. His remarks appear to infringe codes of conduct but even if not, he should be ashamed of himself.

Labour closed ranks at the following Planning meeting. My attempt to have the gratuitous comments minuted was voted down. Cllr B put his boot on still further by “wishing he had sent me to the Standards Committee” so I knew I was flogging a dead horse. No point in wasting further time over Bithell’s rudeness. I scribbled a note informing him that I was disappointed with his behaviour but I was dropping my complaint. No response of course! If this incident was the reason for retribution and revenge, that would be dreadful.

I had realised how easy it is to bend to the siren call of greed; accepting the generous Special Responsibility Allowance by settling for a quiet “don’t rock the boat” life. Was I beginning to slide down that slippery slope of avoiding the probing questions or the tenacious quest for more information? No, not yet!

Flintshire Finance arrangements have changed considerably. Finance Director Kerry Feather has retired. The newly appointed top officer admits to possessing limited financial experience. Wales Audit Office admit that the new model is open to risk even though the Chief Executive’s in charge! As Flintshire’s financial predicament still deteriorates, life’s going to get even tougher. Not a good time to be the Chair maybe? Good time to be free of allowance loyalty & do what I’m good at; probing & questioning & calling officers & systems to account. Maybe, that’s the reason people vote me back!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.