Legal experts called in over investigation into historic allowance payments at Hartlepool Borough Council
Councillors have deferred debating a report looking at allowances previously paid to the chair and vice chair of the council to get an external legal opinion.
A working group, initially set up to look into funding to organisations with links to councillors, also investigated allowances paid to the chair and vice chair of Hartlepool Borough Council from 2002 and 2012.
It came after claims were made current Councillor Carl Richardson had previously received two ‘special responsibility allowances’ during this period.
A working group found two allowances were paid to the chair of the council from the period between 2002 and 2012, when the council was run under a ‘mayor and cabinet model’ which changed in 2013.
However, one was a ‘special responsibility allowance’ and the other a ‘chair and vice chair of the council allowance’, started by a council Policy Plenary Committee in 1998.
A final report on the issue went before a Full Hartlepool Borough Council meeting on Thursday to be debated by councillors.
However a motion was tabled from Coun Christopher Akers-Belcher, calling for expert legal advice before the report was debated, including if the payments were lawful and could be recovered.
The motion was passed by 21 votes to nine.
He said: “Not all aspects of these payments have been considered independently.
“The Local Government Association clearly states the chair of the council can only receive reasonable payment for undertaking their duties, to pay anything other than reasonable allowances may be deemed unlawful.
“Article Five [of the 2002 Hartlepool constitution] stated the chairman would be the conscience of the council, I presume other people will draw their own conclusion on that one.
“I understand this is a very unique set of circumstances and certainly not a criticism of our current corporate management team, in particular our chief solicitor Hayley Martin who I hold in really high regard.
“If anyone in this borough is overpaid housing benefit, council tax benefit, or salary, then they would reasonably have been expected to know they were not entitled to the money.”
Hayley Martin, chief solicitor on the council, added going to counsel for a further opinion on the issue would be possible in regards to looking at the ‘reasonableness’ of allowances, as stated in the constitution.
The cost of the legal advice is expected to ‘in the region of £2,000’ according to Ms Martin.
An initial conclusion from the report of the Audit and Governance Committee said ‘there is no legal basis to seek to recover payments made to individuals who previously received the chair or vice chair allowances’.
The report also noted the constitution has changed since and the issue would not be allowed to repeat it self regardless.
It said: “As these allowances were removed in 2011/12 and it is clear that the council now has more robust procedures for managing allowances plaid to the councillors.
“Therefore the previous situation cannot be repeated.”