It's open season on council expenses - here's how to make the most of it

It is the time of the year that every corrupt local government official or politician in the country fears.

The law forces all principal councils and police authorities to give taxpayers and voters direct access to all kinds of financial records that usually stay locked inside filing cabinets.

For one month only (generally in June or July), citizens are empowered to arrive unannounced at their town hall and demand to inspect paperwork and electronic records detailing money spent on their behalf during the preceding financial year.

Here are 10 pointers that should help you turn up something of interest:

1. Obtain a breakdown of expenditure according to the type of purchase, for example by consultancy, or type of contract, or by department or responsible officer. You will need this information before the statutory 20- day inspection period begins.

2. Ask for a breakdown of expenditure in electronic spreadsheet format, such as Excel. This will make it easier to search for data, to conduct a comparative analysis.

3. Identify payments that are hidden, for example under “miscellaneous” or “other”, and decide what the focus of your enquiries will be. For example, are you looking for consultancy fees and rates, or at how many payments have been made without formal contracts being drawn up?

4. Most important of all – examine the accounts yourself. Your inquiries form part of the official audit process, and you are entitled to inspect and copy contracts, bills, receipts and financial books in person.

5. Look beyond the “bottom line figure”.

Councils and police authorities are very good at spending public money. The real story may not be the actual amount that has been sunk into a particular scheme or service, but the status of the project. Look for tender documents, post-contractual payments, performance penalty charges, responsible officials, and the status of the recipient.

6. Authenticate the data. Check what directorship information is held by Companies House. Examine European, national and local financial regulations. Councillors may be involved in the deal, so check the registers of elected members’ expenses and financial interests.

7. Identify outstanding expenditure. Payments may have been carried over into the following financial year. You should insist on sight of any “credit of reserve” note which refers to such transactions. If the note is dated before the end of the recent financial year, then it is part of the annual accounts.

8. Consult legal and financial specialists about the material before you approach a media lawyer. Solicitors or barristers with up-to-date and practising experience in contract, criminal, property, charity and employment law should be contacted for their interpretations.

9. Assert your legal rights. Councils are not permitted to hide behind the Data Protection Act to keep information from taxpayers during the statutory inspection period. Neither do councils have the authority to use the Article 8 privacy clause of the Human Rights Act to withhold public financial records from the taxpayer.

10. Call in the cavalry. If you are obstructed, then tell the council that you will report the responsible official to the police. If you find evidence of corruption, then put the information in front of the Audit Commission and insist on an investigation. Good hunting.

Richard Orange is a journalist for Orchard News Bureau

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