Councils relied too much on informal cabinet briefings: contract legality now being probed

“A CATALOGUE of errors detailing how two district councils were run have been exposed in a ‘gobsmacking’ report.

Initial findings from an investigation into contracts signed by Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire district councils between 2010 to 2016 show councillors’ knowledge was stymied by a ‘lack of information’.

The two councils are conducting reviews into several contracts after fears were raised last year that contracts could have been handed out improperly.

All of them have a value of or more than £10,000. Between the two councils, there are 162 of those in total.

A report also highlights there was an ‘over reliance’ on briefing cabinet members informally, rather than decisions being made at public cabinet or council meetings.

‘A lack of detail’ was also found to be a problem in papers for those cabinet briefings and at cabinet meetings.

The review also found there was ‘poor procedural compliance by officers and members, most notably in documenting decision making’.

Debby Hallett, Lib Dem councillor on Vale council and former group leader, said the ‘gobsmacking’ papers seemed to indicate a ‘culture of sloppiness and shortcuts’ over key contracts.

But she added: “The thing that surprised me is [the councils] have promised to have this done by March, which is putting this in the public domain before the local elections [in May].”

That, she said, showed the councils’ willingness to conduct the reviews in a spirit of ‘transparency and integrity’.

Adrianna Partridge, the councils’ head of corporate service, notes in the report: “This review has identified a significant risk that the councils have incurred expenditure that has not been adequately approved in accordance with the councils’ constitutions, which could have both financial and reputational risk.”

In the report which will go to the councils’ joint audit and governance committee on Monday, she states: “Action has already been taken to address and strengthen the decision making process on individual projects, and it is acknowledge that a greater transparency is needed, including an increase in the number of formal papers taken to cabinet and full council which the senior management team is enforcing.”

The councils have set aside a budget of £30,000 for legal advice if they need to take any action over contracts in the future.

Confidential papers will be discussed next week.

They are understood to refer to specific details of the councils’ eight to 10 contracts which are being reviewed.

https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/17377868.gobsmacking-errors-in-how-oxfordshire-councils-awarded-contracts/