A double cover-up at City of York Council has led to cross-party calls for the authority to ditch its culture of secrecy.

Councillors are concerned that the authority routinely tries to hide its failings rather than promote openness and learn from its mistakes.

Calls for transparency followed the revelation that a new report into council officers’ conduct is likely to remain secret.

And that report was only commissioned in response to anger at an attempt to conceal the results of a previous investigation.

Serious failings

The current concerns date back to council payments of more than £174,000 to a communications consultant, which began in the financial year 2015/16.

An investigation by external auditors uncovered what one expert described as “a catalogue of serious failings”. Work was awarded and paid for without a tendering process, proper contracts or monitoring.

But the report into these procurement failings was withheld from publication by City of York Council. It only became public when the document was leaked to the York Press.

On February 22, members of the council’s audit and governance committee voted to make the report public and discuss it openly.

That led Andy Docherty, assistant legal director at the council, to ask councillors to state why they had voted to do so.

His intervention was described as “unprecedented” by Cllr Chris Steward. He said, “officers advise, members decide”.

‘Appalling decision’

Cllr Mark Warters. Photograph: City of York Council / YouTube

After this debacle, York council chief executive Mary Weastell asked the Local Government Association to review two things:

  1. the general procurement situation at the authority
  2. the conduct at that audit and governance committee meeting in February.

The first report, now published, concluded that, after changes had been made, “the council has a good corporate procurement function”.

But the second report will remain a “private and confidential document”, says council leader David Carr.

That is despite him saying at a full council meeting in July that the report would be made public.

In an email to independent councillor Mark Warters, Cllr Carr wrote that the report has been completed “in draft form” and has been submitted to the interim head of HR at the council to check for accuracy before he receives a copy.

He wrote: “This report is looking into the conduct of members, officers, and other attendees at the meeting and has therefore to remain a private and confidential document.”

Cllr Warters called that decision “appalling”. In his reply, he wrote:

The investigation into the furore at a meeting over suppression of a report now produces a report that officers are to suppress publication of, after the draft is no doubt ‘altered’ for ‘accuracy’.

This is not acceptable.

…I for one would not have wasted my time in contributing to the LGA investigation had I known it would be as part of a ‘secret’ report only finalised after what appears to be a ‘sanitising’ operation between City of York Council HR and the LGA.

He wasn’t the only councillor to say that. Conservative committee member Paul Doughty tweeted:

Stitch-up

Other members of the council have similar misgivings.

YorkMix understands that the terms of reference of both LGA investigations were devised by the chief executive Mary Weastell without the involvement of councillors.

Conservative councillor Chris Steward said he thought that was wrong “and it basically meant that there was what some would say was a stitch-up in terms of the content of the reviews”.

If the unpublished report did call for disciplinary action against either officers or councillors he would be happy for its publication to be delayed until “due process” had taken place.

But he feared instead this was just a stalling tactic.

“If we had certainty over where it’s going and when, then I’d be fine with that. But we don’t have that.”

At the next audit and governance committee, which takes place on Wednesday (September 20), he said at worst members should get to see that draft report in private session – “and then we get assurances from officers about how they’ll be dealing with it”.

But he didn’t hold out much hope of that happening.

‘Secrecy culture’

Cllr Chris Steward

He described the LGA’s procurement review as a “waste of time” – as it only confirmed what they already knew, that most of the council’s procurement was fine.

Meanwhile the specific procurement failings identified by external auditors had “still not been investigated properly”.

As far as councillors are aware there has been no disciplinary action against officers for allowing £170,000 to be spent without any proper checks – and there are many unanswered questions.

“It’s basically been ignored,” the former council leader said. “I’m not aware of any steps that have been taken at all.”

Cllr Steward added: “We’ve got to think about the 2,000 officers doing a fantastic job who are being really tarnished by this whole secrecy culture.”

He said the Conservative group stood at the election on a manifesto commitment to bring in greater council transparency – and he wanted to fulfil that promise.

‘Bad reputation’

Cllr Dave Taylor

Green Party Cllr Dave Taylor also felt strongly about the secrecy issue.

He said very few people even knew the terms of reference of the LGA investigation.

“Councillors should know – and I think the public should know – what were the terms of reference of the investigation by the LGA.”

He said members of both the audit and governance and the scrutiny committees should now see the draft report.

“It’s unacceptable that members of those two committees have not been able to see the report in full.”

Even if the report cannot be made public immediately because it recommends disciplinary action against councillors or council officers “there has to be a commitment by the council that the report will be published in the fullness of time”.

He feels that the council’s recourse to secrecy “is totally unacceptable”.

“York will begin to get a bad reputation for this if we don’t overcome it.”

Official responses

Asked about these issues, a spokesman for City of York Council said:

“The report considers the conduct of councillors, members of staff and other people who attended the February meeting, which is why it is confidential.

“If there are allegations of wrongdoing which warrant further action, the matter would need to be referred to the standards committee or dealt with as an employment issue.

“Therefore it would be completely inappropriate to make the report public.”

A spokesman for the LGA said: “We don’t comment on individual councils.”

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