Row over £140,000 Hartlepool civic contract given to council leader’s organisation

Councillors have blamed the Government for a planned council tax rise.
Councillors have blamed the Government for a planned council tax rise.

The leader of Hartlepool council has strongly denied suggestions a council contract worth £140,000 awarded to an organisation of which he is a manager did not follow the proper process.

Councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher described claims surrounding a new contract between Hartlepool Borough Council and Healthwatch Hartlepool as “blatantly untrue”.

It follows questions raised at last Thursday’s full council meeting about whether the council’s own tender procedures for contracts worth over £100,000 had been followed.

Councillor Jonathan Brash asked if the Healthwatch contract had been subject to the council’s procedure for outside bodies to have at least two years of audited accounts available for contracts of more than £100,000.

The council awarded the Healthwatch contract to Hartlepool Voluntary Development Agency (HVDA) in 2013 in a three-year agreement.

But questions were asked after a new Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) under the name of Healthwatch Hartlepool was only registered with the Charity Commission on February 2 of this year.

Coun Brash said at the meeting: “I have received a complaint informally from members of the public who believe that something has happened of this order. I don’t have the facts and make no accusation at all.”

It is said Healthwatch staff employed by HVDA are in the process of being transferred to the newly-created Healthwatch Hartlepool CIO.

In an email to council chief solicitor Peter Devlin, Coun Paul Thompson said: “The contract has been awarded to an organisation which is only six weeks old. How could that have possibly met any financial background checks?”

Mr Devlin said at the meeting the concerns raised would be further investigated.

Coun Brash added at the meeting: “I genuinely hope we can disperse these concerns entirely through the presentation of fact.”

Healthwatch groups are independent statutory bodies that serve as a consumer champion by gathering and representing views of the public.

In a statement Coun Christopher Akers-Belcher said: “The comments made by certain opposition councillors are clearly vexatious.

“It is a blatant untruth to suggest that due process has not been followed, but I have come to expect such comments from those councillors who appear not to value the work of Hartlepool council.”

A council spokesman added: “The agreement for the provision of Healthwatch Hartlepool commenced in April 2013 following an open tendering process in line with the council’s procurement rules.

“The three-year agreement, with an option for two 12-month extensions, subject to satisfactory performance and funding being available, was awarded to Hartlepool Voluntary Development Agency (HVDA) to support the establishment of Healthwatch Hartlepool as a social enterprise in accordance with statutory requirements under the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

“A Shadow Board has been operating since April 2015, and it has been confirmed that Healthwatch Hartlepool is registered as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation in line with the statutory requirements.

“As was always the intention, the agreement will be assigned in its entirety to Healthwatch Hartlepool from April 1, 2016.

“We are satisfied that proper council process has been followed.”