Audit Office called as politicians question Council’s financial management

Plaid Cymru politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP have contacted the Wales Audit Office expressing their concern that Carmarthenshire County Council cannot properly account for how public money is spent.

In their letter to the Auditor General for Wales, the Party of Wales duo point out conflicting information they have seen from the council as to how much the Chief Executive was paid for duties as the Returning Officer during last year’s local council elections.

Less than a month ago Mr Thomas and Mr Edwards exposed that Carmarthenshire Council’s Chief Executive, Mark James received a £20,000 cash advance for election activities a minimum of five week before the election actually took place. Following this revelation, the Carmarthenshire politicians submitted Freedom of Information requests to all Welsh Councils to find out when council’s paid their Returning Officer. In response, not only did Carmarthenshire Council present conflicting information on the amount of monies paid to the Returning Officer, but also stated it did not hold information on when those payments were made.

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said he was gravely concerned that the local authority, which is responsible for taxpayers’ money, does not hold records on what payments it made to the Returning Officer. His constituency colleague and Member of Parliament, Jonathan Edwards, said the discrepancies in the information provided by the council is a perfect example as to why the council should hold this information.

The politicians also raised with the Auditor General for Wales the concerns of county residents as to whether their council tax money was being spent appropriately, citing the recent court case in which the Chief Executive had his costs indemnified to bring a libel case against a county resident.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said:

“When we first raised concerns about the Chief Executive receiving a £20,000 cash advance we were told this was a ‘part payment’. However information received from the Council this week suggests this isn’t the case and the Chief Executive, in his role as Returning Officer, received full payment before the election.

“I’m gravely concerned to have been told the local authority, which is responsible for taxpayers’ money, does not hold information on when it made these election payments to the Returning Officer – especially when I have been provided with differing information, from the authority itself, regarding the amount of monies paid.

“Every Welsh council which has responded to our freedom of information request to date has been able to provide us with the details of when payments were made to their Returning Officer. It is Carmarthenshire Council’s lack of proper financial management, or sheer unwillingness to be transparent, that has left us with no alternative but to contact the Auditor General.”

Jonathan Edwards MP added:

“We’ve been provided with different information on what the Returning Officer received for town and community council duties as well as different information on what he received for by-elections during the year. This is of great concern and the true figures need to be established as a matter of urgency.

“It is astonishing to be told that the Council doesn’t hold information on when it made payments to the Chief Executive for his Returning Officer duties. The discrepancies in the information provided is a perfect example as to why the council should hold this information.

“We are talking about taxpayers’ money. Every single penny should be accounted for but it seems Carmarthenshire County Council is unable to do that.”

ENDS
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Notes to Editor:
i) E-mail correspondence from the both the Chief Executive and the Director of Resources on 14th January 2013 states the differential in the Chief Executive’s salary between 2010/11 and 2011/12(£20,016.00 excluding pension contributions) is entirely due to the county / community elections. However the freedom of information response states the total figure paid to the Chief Executive in his role as Returning Officer was £20,135.89 – a difference of £119.89.

ii) E-mail correspondence from the Director of Resources on 15th January 2013 states the Returning Officer was paid £9339.33 specifically for duties relating to Town and Community Councils. The freedom of information response from the council states the figure for town and community councils to be £8,029.59 – a difference of £1309.74.

iii) E-mail correspondence from the Director of Resources on 15th January 2013 states the differential figure in the Chief Executive’s salary between 2010/11 and 2011/12 included payment for a number of by-elections that took place during the year. However the freedom of information response states the Returning Officer received £387.20 for two by-elections that took place in addition to the £20,135.89 (not £20,016 as the statement of accounts show) which was paid for elections that took place on 3rd May 2012.

iv) In e-mail correspondence on 15th January 2013 the authority’s Director of Resources states “Payment was made in the year as funds were available and a substantial element of the work is actually carried out in advance of any election. This took pressure off the subsequent year’s budget.”

However the freedom of information response states “Fees are available to the Returning Officer as soon as an election is called and are paid at his discretion. Payments in accordance with the scale of fees are made when requested by the Returning Officer. We do not hold information on the precise date payments were made”.

There appears to be no logic in the reasoning of the Director of Resources to make an early payment if, in fact, the Returning Office dictates when payments should be made.

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