Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, and Grant Shapps, the housing minister, will shortly be publishing the government’s response to their consultation on the rather boring subject of holding councils to account after they have closed down the Audit Commission.
Hidden in this rather dense document is a rather nasty proposal which seems to go against everything they stand for in opening up councils to scrutiny. The ministers are on record in wanting to encourage armchair auditors, more localism, more public rights, openness, you name it.
Eric Pickles is even a fan of my friend Mrs Angry- a thorny red rose in the side of true blue Barnet Council- much to chagrin of Brian Coleman and his friends.
So it rather bizarre that top Tory politicians should include a measure to abolish a 150 year old right that brought to light one of the worst scandals in local government.
The exposure of Dame Shirley Porter in the 1990s for the infamous ” homes for votes ” scandal that included ” gerrymandering ” votes by selling council homes in Tory marginal seats was only possible because of a public right to force an auditor to investigate.
As the report says: “Members of the public currently have rights to question the auditor of an audited body about its accounts and raise objections… in respect of unlawful items of account or matters on which the auditor can make a report in the public interest..
“Auditors have only limited discretion to refuse to investigate objections, but the costs of investigating objections, which are recovered from the local public body and, therefore, funded by council taxpayers, can be disproportionate to the sums involved in the complaint, or to the normal audit costs of the local public body.”
This rarely used power is now being scrapped because as the paper says: “we consider that the rights for local government electors to object to the accounts are both outdated and over-burdensome on auditors, local public bodies and council tax payers.”
So effectively Pickles and Shapps are saying it is too burdensome for auditors to expose corruption and certainly not in the interest of local people to have the power to force the auditor to do it. One wonders why ministers are so keen to do this. Are they expecting more corruption? Do they not want the most forensic skilled person – the auditor – to examine accounts but rather as they propose go to lay people like the Information Commissioner and the local government ombudsman to do it? Or is Mr Shapps repealing this measure as a gift to a secret fellow Tory heroine of his, Dame Shirley?
I think we deserve to be told. You could try to get answers. Grant Shapps is a great user of Twitter, so you may send a tweet to @grantshapps. Eric Pickles is more old twentieth century and not very techy but he does have an email address, email@example.com.
In the meantime I have written a full piece – one of five – on life after the Audit Commission – on the new Exaro News website. The link is http://bit.ly/n8vRpc .