A BARRISTER has called for greater transparency around the issue of awarding council contracts to increase public confidence.
Middlesbrough-based barrister Tom Mitchell fronted a public inquiry into Hartlepool Borough Council after a Local Government Association Peer Review raised major concerns about the perception that some councillors act out of self-interest and the perceived lack of rigour around councillors declaring interests.
Part of his investigation focused on the Connected Care service, which was piloted in Owton Manor by Manor Residents’ Association in 2008, to help people live independently in their homes.
It also looked at the subsequent awarding of the contract to the community interest company Who Cares North East, which is based at Manor Residents’ Association.
Concerns were raised over decisions made by Councillor Ged Hall in 2011, to exempt Connected Care from the council’s usual tendering process, which left Who Cares with no competition and considerable public funding.
But the report said there had been genuine debate among officers who felt going out to tender could jeopardise funding for the “unique” service.
Mr Mitchell said: “Whilst Coun Hall arguably failed on March 30, 2011, to mention his previous dealings with Manor Residents Association when I believe he could have done so, I have no evidence to suggest that this was done to gain advantage.”
Mr Mitchell said changes brought in over the last two years mean the same thing could not happen again.
He found some of the negative public perception to the council was linked to political clashes.
He also said clear and critical evaluation of contracts and value for money would go a long way to improve perception.
He said: “Hartlepool Borough Council should be tough and seen to be tough on all ventures that don’t give what the ordinary person in the street would describe as value for money, particularly when elected members are at the helm of those ventures.”
He also referred to Coun Pam Hargreaves who was investigated and cleared by the council over claims 28 contracts were awarded to her company by the local authority without going through the proper process.
Mr Mitchell said: “The matter raised against Coun Hargreaves proves that it is easy to be mistaken about people’s motives in the absence of all the facts.
“It is a real worry that communications seem to have broken down to the point that people are so easily and publicly accused of things they didn’t do.”
Mr Mitchell produced four conclusions and recommendations in his report.
As well as his recommendations for procurement and exemptions, he called for all councillors to be given more guidance on declaring interests which should be expanded to include things like details of employment and interests in property.
He said councillors must continually update their declaration of interest if their circumstances change.
He concluded by saying: “The taxpaying public has a right to know who exactly is authorising the spending of their money.
“If in the course of considering a matter, it occurs to an elected member that they have had some dealing with a party related to that decision, the simplest thing in the world is to say it by way of personal explanation. Let others be the judge of your honesty.”
Hartlepool Labour group leader and council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher welcomed the findings.
He said: “I’m really pleased that it dispels the myth that there was any wrongdoing at the council.
“I welcome the recommendations for anything that can be done to strengthen accountability and really give the public that confidence that councillors are acting in their best interests.”
Coun Allison Lilley, leader of Putting Hartlepool First, also welcomed the report’s findings but added: “From what I’ve read so far it is a bit bland and there’s not a great deal of detail. I support the recommendations on councillors interests but I think he could have gone a little bit further.”
Conservative leader Ray Wells said: “I questioned the necessity of spending the money on this inquiry as I said we already had procedures in place to ensure that no wrongdoing could happen within the authority.
“Tom Mitchell’s report has clearly supported my earlier comments. I sincerely hope that those who called for the inquiry are now satisfied that councillors have not acted in an improper manner.”