Contracts probe is a vendetta says councillor

Councillor Pam Hargreaves
Councillor Pam Hargreaves

A COUNCILLOR is facing a probe over claims 28 contracts were awarded to her company by the local authority without going through the proper process.

But councillor Pamela Hargreaves, who owns business development firm Xivvi, vehemently denies the claims and said she believes it is a “personal vendetta” to blacken her name.

It came to light at a heated full council meeting when council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher claimed the former Labour councillor had failed to declare her interest when she was portfolio holder for regeneration back in 2011, and accused her of changing procedures to give her a “distinct advantage” in the small business market.

He also claimed that 28 contracts had been awarded to Xivvi for goods and services without going through the procurement process.

But Coun Hargreaves, who refers to herself as independent Labour but is classed as independent by the council, has welcomed the investigation and the chance to put the matter “to bed”.

Coun Hargreaves said she always declares her interests, that services were always procured properly and that she had never altered the grant-making process.

At full council, Coun Akers-Belcher put forward a motion which he said would “aid transparency” but it sparked anger from Coun Hargreaves’ husband, councillor Jonathan Brash, who accused the leader of proposing a “corrupt” motion.

Coun Brash said the accusations were “two-year-old lies” which had been dismissed by the Labour Group executive two years ago and said the council’s monitoring officer was aware but did nothing because “there was nothing to answer”.

He said Coun Hargreaves had asked for all the information about contracts be put into the public domain.

Coun Akers-Belcher’s original motion read: “This council resolves that any contracts for works and services together with any associated payments made with private companies and voluntary/community sector organisations, declared upon any elected members ‘Register of Interests’ forms must be endorsed and approved by full council subject to procurement rules.”

Coun Brash, who also refers to himself as independent Labour, said it would mean the Labour-controlled full council would be approving contracts for organisations that some members, including Coun Akers-Belcher, receive a wage from.

Coun Brash said: “This is the most stupid motion ever, it is corrupt.

“Putting control of major contracts in the hands of one elected group is corrupt.”

Coun Akers-Belcher, who is manager of Healthwatch in town, said it wasn’t about changing procurement rules and said they would only come to full council once it has been through that process.

Tensions were running high and independent councillor Cath Hill said: “I don’t know what the problem people have with Pamela Hargreaves is about but I would plea that we leave the malice, the vindictiveness, the evil and we go-ahead and do the very best that we can for Hartlepool.”

Putting Hartlepool First councillor Geoff Lilley questioned whether the council would be liable for legal action adding: “I believe that full council can not do what has been proposed.”

Labour councillor Carl Richardson, who said he couldn’t see anything wrong with the motion, accused Coun Brash of showing contempt for the chamber but Coun Brash said: “I am showing contempt for you.”

Coun Brash then asked Coun Akers-Belcher: “Why politicise contracts of this council?”

To which the council leader replied: “This is about openness and transparency, this is not about changing the current procedures that we have delegated down.”

After further debate, it was eventually agreed to remove the words “endorsed and approved” and replace them with ““noted”, so full council would not be making a decision over contracts but reports would be presented outlining what the contract is and what the interest is.

Coun Hargreaves and independent councillor Paul Thompson, business partner in Xivvi, were not part of the debate after declaring an interest.

Second motion

LABOUR councillor Robbie Payne, chairman of the regeneration portfolio committee, tabled a second motion at the end of the meeting which called for the investigation.

It read: “I would like to move that this council initiates a full investigation, to be reported to the regeneration services policy committee.

“This investigation must:

* Outline what amendments have indeed been made to the procedures, initiated by the then regeneration portfolio holder Councillor Pamela Hargreaves, on July 22, 2011.

* What changes were made to the panel composition that awards our business grants?

* Why did the council not procure these 28 contracts and why were our preferred service providers by-passed.

* Interview all recipients of small business grants to ascertain what procurement alternatives they were presented with in the use of their small business grants?

* Ensure we maintain the integrity of the council and if there is anything untoward unearthed through the investigation that it is immediately referred to appropriate authorities.”

Coun Payne told the council chamber that he did not believe there was anyone on the council that was corrupt but he said the investigation would put the accusations to bed “once and for all”.

Members agreed, with Coun Brash and Coun Lauderdale abstaining.

Putting Hartlepool First councillors Keith Dawkins, Geoff and Alison Lilley and independent councillor Cath Hill voted against.

Accusations over business grants

THE accusations by council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher date back to the summer of 2011.

Speaking at the meeting, Coun Akers-Belcher said: “In August 2011, I reported a concern and breach to the monitoring officer.

“Within that report I stated that on July 22, 2011, an executive decision was made by the then regeneration portfolio holder Pamela Hargreaves to amend the business grants package.

“Coun Hargreaves asked that the quarterly reports, relating to the financial assistance provided to businesses by the economic development team, be brought back to her portfolio detailing the nature of the grant, who they were provided to and who the provider would be.

“Yet this was done when Coun Hargreaves failed to declare a prejudicial interest as she was and is the owner of Xivvi Ltd.”

Coun Akers-Belcher claims Coun Hargreaves was changing procedures to give her a “distinct advantage” in the small business market.

He added: “Since taking over as chair of finance and policy committee I have taken the time to look at current, past and future budgets.

“Can you imagine, given the public inquiry into the voluntary and community sector, to then find not one, not two but 28 contracts have been given to Coun Hargreaves’ private company for goods and services, paid for by this council either from the general fund or through our business support grants and not one of those contracts has gone through our procurement process.

“In fact some of the services are for items which we have a preferred contractors list and Xivvi is not on that list but still ended up being paid to Coun Hargreaves’ private company.”

Probe welcomed

COUNCILLOR Pamela Hargreaves, said she believes this is a “personal attack” and welcomed the investigation.

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Hargreaves said: “I believe that this is a very personal attack on my reputation and I believe a small group of councillors are pursuing a personal vendetta.

“I have always declared my business interests on my Declaration of Interest Form and the services of Xivvi have always been procured using the procedures agreed by Coun Payne when he was portfolio holder.

“Indeed all of the payments made to Xivvi are a matter of public record which is how Coun Chris Akers-Belcher knows about them in the first place.

“In terms of the small business support grants, I have never altered the grant-making process at all. I was never on the grant-making panel.

“All I did was ask that a report be submitted to the portfolio holder about grants that had already been made so that the public could see all the details of what was awarded, to whom and for what - making the system more open and transparent not less.

“I welcome the opportunity for the investigation as the desperate Labour leader already tried this approach before and was dismissed by the chief solicitor as ‘a bit of politics’ and by the then Labour leader - it’s about time it was put to bed once and for all and their apology forthcoming.”