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Pressing Audit?

Pressing AuditIn a previous article 'Premature Ejaculation?' we highlighted a press release that Fylde Council had published just before the election, and we thought its publication was premature.

In it, the Council made it appear that the investigation (being undertaken by their external auditors KPMG) into the way FBC let the contract for operating St Annes Swimming Pool, had found it was an open and fair process.

They said “KPMG, the Council’s external auditor, has confirmed that the selection process had been handled fairly. They have conducted a very thorough review of the process and we are pleased to say that they agree it was carried out in accordance with all relevant legal requirements and protocols."

We can now confirm to our readers that the Auditor's report has not yet been published.

We further understand that their investigation into the matter has not even been completed.

So not only is there no report, but KPMG's findings have not even been established conclusively.

They are therefore not in any position "to have confirmed that the selection process had been handled fairly" before the election.

That being the case, it is not yet clear whether the process was fair, or whether all the relevant requirements and protocols had been met - and that's why we say the press release was premature.

It is highly unusual for a Council to attempt to second guess a report that has not been published.

In fact, Auditors often say that until such time as a report is finalised it is important that it remains confidential between the parties.

Normally, Fylde would wait for the report to be published, then take the report to a committee, and it would come to light and be reported in the press when it was published as part of the committee agenda.

But here, aspects of it were published as a press statement seemingly based on nothing more than a couple of conversations between Fylde's Chief Executive and the Auditors - and even then it was before the Auditors investigation was completed.

We think our readers are going to wonder why the Council felt the need to pre-empt what the KPMG report was going to say.

What made it so urgent?

What could have been the cause of such a departure from normal practice?

Could it have been because there was an election two days after it was released to the press, and the press statement was intended to influence the outcome of that election?

Could it have been because it would allow some candidates to score political brownie points over others?

Was it intended to damage swimming pool bidder Richard Ellis and strengthen the support for Christine Akeroyd - both of whom were contesting the Kilnhouse ward election as candidates?

And if that turns out to be the case; the question of who authorised the press release; (and to a lesser extent who issued it), becomes very important.

Fylde's awful 'Media Policy' sets out how press releases should be addressed.

It says "Press Releases that deal with strategic matters or sensitive issues will require approval from the Chief Executive or a nominated representative. Where necessary, the advice of the Head of Legal Services will be sought.

Proactive press releases issued by the Communications Officer on behalf of the council cannot and will not contain any political bias."

It probably wasn't a strategic matter, but it set out to contradict the election literature put out by one of the election candidates just before an election, so it must, by anyone's standards, have been a "sensitive issue" - and it should have been the Chief Executive who gave approval one way or another. It has been alleged to us that he did, but as yet, that is not confirmed.

But, (assuming it was an officer who authorised the publication) - equally important is the question of whether there had been any party political pressure brought to bear on that officer to do so.

Again, it has been alleged to us that there was such political pressure, and that officers either succumbed to it, or willingly undertook to issue the statement because of the approaches they received.

For those reasons, on 8th May we asked who had authorised the press release.

The Council's response was to treat the question as a Freedom of Information request - which allowed them to delay a reply.

We had an answer on 31 May (which, to be fair, was earlier than the latest date possible to give it). That confirmed the Auditor's report had not been published. But it refused to say who had authorised the statement or who had issued it.

We were told "the press statement was issued and authorised corporately by and on behalf of the Council"., (and it implied we would have to make do with that).

We were expecting an answer of this sort.

It also said we could ask for the decision not to provide more detailed information to be reviewed by another Council, and suggested we could eventually go to the Information Commissioner if we remained dissatisfied - and that's where this might well end up. But the Commissioner has a caseload backlog of about 18 months, so it will be a long haul.

Why does it matter?

Well, one of the Candidates, Richard Ellis (who readers will remember was dissatisfied with the way FBC had dealt with the selection and rejection of his tender to manage the St Annes Pool) had stood for election in Kilnhouse Ward.

Having seen how the Council operated at first hand, he wanted to get in and change it.  We say power to his elbow.

Kilnhouse was also the ward of Cllr Christine Akeroyd who was instrumental in deciding not to have Mr Ellis run the pool - even though he had been accepted through all the Council's pre qualification stages, was invited to tender, and submitted the lowest price. (She was the Council's official 'Procurement Champion')

We pretty much thought Mr Ellis stood in Kilnhouse because it was her ward and he could show the taxpayers of her ward that her decision had cost them money, and they could choose someone better (The implication being they could choose Mr Ellis).

That's all good political stuff. It's what happens, and it's right that it should.

But the trouble was that when the very astute Mr Ellis put his second campaign leaflet out with some hard-hitting financial facts in it, it went out just four days before the election, and it was too late for Cllr Akeroyd to get a leaflet made up, printed and distributed to counteract what Mr Ellis had said.

Her re-election chances were being threatened by his leaflet.

So we believe she turned to the Council's officers - quite possibly Mr Woodward - and asked for a press statement to be made to "correct" what Mr Ellis had said in his leaflet.

The officers, probably Mr Woodward, or someone acting with his authority, then authorised the infamous press statement that, it has transpired, could not justify the claims that were made in it.

If the press release was authorised by officers, (and it has been alleged to us that it was), then it was very wrong.

It amounts to political bias, and could well have changed the result of the election.

Readers will remember here that Mr Ellis was only 52 votes behind Mr (now Cllr) Armit.

So if only 27 of the voters who chose Mr Armit had voted for Mr Ellis, then Mr Ellis would have been the new Councillor, and what was a one-seat Conservative majority overall would have moved Fylde into a "No Overall Control" (Although we prefer the term, 'balanced') Council.

But, you might  ask, how could a press release that wasn't published in the press anyway (at least not until after the election) have changed the course of Fylde's history and the results of the election?

Well, it's because as a matter of course, press statements are copied to all current Councillors, and readers will remember Mr Ellis told us on election day that he had seen large numbers of Conservative party workers parachuted into Kilnhouse Ward just before the election.

He also told us he believed they could have been using the Council's press release to damage his standing in the eyes of the Kilnhouse electorate.

We can now reveal that's quite possibly what did happen.

Readers can follow this link to a copy of the Council's press release which was provided by a party worker at a polling station on Polling day as having been handed out in Kilnhouse ward that morning. If you look carefully at the bottom, you will see it carries what is known as an Imprint - this is a legal requirement on all electoral communications, and it classes them as such.

It says "Printed by Tim Armit 2 Chatsworth Road Lytham St Annes FY8 2JN"

We want to make it VERY CLEAR at this point that we do not believe, and we are not even suggesting, that Cllr Armit engineered this situation.

On the contrary, as a non-councillor, he would not have received a copy of it, and we suspect he simply took advantage of an electoral tool that fell into his lap - and we don't criticise him for that at all.

But we do criticise the fact that it fell into his lap in the first place, and we criticise it because it appears to have been written by and authorised by what should be neutral non-party political officers - possibly in response to political pressure from members of the former Council.

Whoever authorised this should have had the backbone to say "No, I'm sorry, it is not appropriate for me to presume what the Auditor's report would say based on a couple of phone calls, and I will not issue such a press release".

The real worry here is that if officers bow to political pressure on such small matters as this, and to councillors as mild mannered as Cllr Akeroyd, how can we have any confidence at all that they will stand up to a bullying and blustering member on something really important?

If it was the Chief Executive who authorised it, then it's a very worrying sign.

The answer is we can't be sure (at least not yet) and we are therefore right to be worried.

What we can say is that it was issued by an officer (or rather by a sub-contracted officer since Fylde's spin doctors are subcontracted from Blackpool Council), but we're still not clear who authorised it.

It was clearly wrong to issue it, and that fact is further emphasized because this particular press statement has since been removed from the comprehensive list of former press statements on FBC's website.

But it needs more than simple removal.

It was a public statement, and in our opinion, whilst it was couched in relatively inoffensive terms, it undoubtedly reduced the electoral chances of Mr Ellis and increased the electoral chances of Cllr Akeroyd.

For that reason, we believe whoever did authorise the press statement should be identified to the public and to Councillors, so that in future, we can weight the importance we attach to their pronouncements.

In response to the public statement (now withdrawn), whoever it was should make a public apology to Mr Ellis at the very least.

One final point. We understand Mr Ellis raised his concern about what had happened in a letter to Mr Woodward, and sought answers from him.

It might not surprise our readers to know that, co-incidentally, a reply was provided a day after the deadline by which a formal complaint about the process could be made to the election authorities.

Don't hold your breath dear readers, but we will pursue this matter to the Information Commissioner and we will try and see who it was that authorised the statement.

And we'll bring you the REAL results of the audit inquiry as soon as we get wind of them.

As we've said all along on that matter. We're pretty much sure FBC didn't want Mr Ellis (because he didn't fit their perception of what a leisure provider should be) but they felt they had to concoct a cock-and-bull system to be able to exclude him - so it looked like an objective decision and not prejudice on their part.

The system they used was just like many of the other objective decisions they make when they "fix" the results of land sale "tenders" and contracts (by weighting the selection criteria). It looks an open and transparent process but it's rigged before they even start.

We wouldn't be surprised to find that's what their auditors say too. It's so obvious you can't miss it when you know what to look for.

Dated:  28 June 2011


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