Investigation into Â£680,000 care contracts finds no wrongdoing at charity
A council investigation into the awarding of contracts worth Â£680,000 to an organisation linked to a scandal-hit charity has found no wrongdoing.
Hartlepool Borough Council awarded the contract for a scheme, which helped people in the Manor area of town to live more independently, to Who Cares North East in 2011-2013.
The community interest company was based at the former Manor Residents’ Association which was subject to a damning council audit report and whose manager, and former councillor Angela Wilcox, was jailed last year for fraud.
The council’s Audit and Governance Committee presented its findings yesterday after being asked in December to examine the process for the awarding of the Connected Care contract to Who Cares North East.
It found that Councillor Ged Hall, who in March 2011 agreed to exempt Connected Care from the council’s usual tendering process, had not acted improperly.
It said he took advice and the decision was backed by the then Cabinet.
The investigation also said it is fine for councillors to sit on the board of outside organisations that receive council contracts so long as rules around declaring interests are followed.
But independent Councillor Paul Thompson said the report did not go into enough detail about councillors’ involvement as trustees or directors for Manor Residents’ Association and Who Cares North East, who he said had a duty to see they operated in line with the law.
Coun Stephen Akers-Belcher and Coun Paul Beck both resigned from the board of Manor Residents’ Association in 2013 citing a lack of information and transparency around tribunals brought by employees.
Coun Thompson said: “What’s telling about this report isn’t so much what’s in the report is what’s not in the report.
“There’s quite a lot lacking around Manor Residents’ Association. It wasn’t just about the [contract] process in the spirit of the referral.” Coun Thompson said all councillors should be completely removed from contracting processes.
But council chief solicitor Peter Devlin said the awarding of contracts is not decided by councillors alone but also involves several senior officers.
He added a number of recommendations made by a barrister regarding councillors declaring interests after a public inquiry in 2013 had been put in place and were more stringent than many other councils.
Coun John Tennant said: “I just don’t feel this report goes far enough.”
Coun Ray Martin-Wells, chair of the audit committee, said it would look internally into any outstanding concerns.
He said: “I have no problems with further investigations by our officers.”
Referring to Wilcox, who was jailed for 20 months in December for fraud, Coun Martin-Wells said: “I don’t think she was by any means made a scapegoat for any other trustees. We will certainly investigate what the trustees’ actions are.
“As an elected member, very often you can be put on a board without realising the full ramifications. That’s something we should pick up and make very clear to elected members.”
Resident Steve Latimer said it was 18 months before the council acted on public concerns over Manor Residents’ Association’s accounts.
He said: “The investigation that everybody was wanting into how Manor Residents was run, how contracts were awarded to Who Cares North East, the detail of it is completely missing.”
Teesside Crown Court heard that Wilcox created false bank statements to mislead council auditors into believing Manor Residents’ Association’s finances were healthy.
Noel Adamson, council head of audit and governance, said: “We told the organisations they had to improve very quickly or that would be the end of the small amount of council funding we had control of at the time.
“As soon as we had evidence we felt they were trying to mislead us as an authority we took that straight to the police.”