REVEALED: Council warnings kept secret for 6 months

York Press: Warnings at council were kept secret for 6 months Warnings at council were kept secret for 6 months

A SECRET report has revealed a raft of concerns about council decision-making in York and about information being withheld from the public.

The "democratic governance" audit of City of York Council identifies a number of weaknesses.

Councillors discussed the issue last week but officials did not publish the original report, written in December.

Its findings mirror complaints from opposition parties and the public in recent months, about council transparency and accountability.

>> Read the report here 

The audit gives the council a rating of "moderate assurance", the third of five categories. Specific concerns are ranked into three levels, and although York council had none in the most serious level, there were four each at levels two and three. Level two is classed as "significant system weakness" and level three "merits attention by management."

York-based governance expert Gwen Swinburn, who obtained the report, said: "I thought democracy and transparency were poor at the council, but we have hit yet another low.

"This time the first detailed democratic governance audit was intentionally withheld from councillors and citizens by the very officer responsible for democracy. The audit, highlighting multiple system weaknesses was not even given to councillors. Instead a rose-tinted response from the monitoring officer was slipped through, last item on audit committee - just appalling."

Ian Floyd, council director of customer and business support services, said it was usual for audit reports to be summarised to the audit committee rather than provided in full.

He said: "At a previous audit committee, where the summary of the report was included in a Veritau monitoring report, the committee asked for a report on progress against the recommendations. An update was taken to the audit committee and the full report sent to the committee following the meeting upon request. All Veritau reports are followed up by Veritau and they track progress of recommendations."

Veritau, the auditors, challenged the manner in which "key" decisions are made. Key decisions are those having a "significant impact" on communities or involving £500,000 or more of public money, or ten per cent of a particular department budget.

Such decisions must be made at cabinet level unless delegated in urgent cases. But the auditors said: "Conversations with officers throughout the council revealed there was misunderstanding regarding who could and couldn't make key decisions and under what circumstances, if any, they could be made by individual cabinet members or officers."

They said some decisions by officers or individual cabinet members had been recorded as key decisions, despite not going through cabinet.

The auditors also said there was a lack of clarity about whether decisions would be made in public or private, a controversial issue at the council in recent years, and said the lack of clarity made it difficult for the public to know how and when they could have their say. The auditors also said there was inconsistent or insufficient information published about officer decisions and raised concerns about out-of-date information on the council website, papers for some meetings not being available, the way information was presented online and the council's limited use of technology and social media to inform and engage with the public.

Overall, the auditors said the council had "sufficient controls" and satisfactory arrangements for managing risks but said there were a number of weaknesses.

In a written report to last week's meeting, legal and governance assistant director Andy Docherty officers said work had been done to address the concerns.

York Conservative councillor Paul Doughty said: "It would appear that there has been little, if any action from the council's 'Secret Towers'."

He said the inconsistent understanding around key decisions should be revisited in light of the current controversy around the use of £700-a-day interim directors at the council. He added: "As Veritau is also 50 per cent owned by the council, I'd like to know who will monitor them to avoid a conflict of interest?"

Liberal Democrat Nigel Ayre said: “The Audit Report confirms many of our criticisms about how the council is run. The report raises concerns over how decisions are taken and worryingly says that out-of-date and misleading information has been supplied to residents.

"The report makes clear that the council could and should do more to engage the public in decision making. It is this culture change that I think is needed most. We need to move away from Labour taking decisions behind-closed-doors and actually put residents at the heart of the democratic process.”

Committee chair Ruth Potter said the report would help improve how the council works. She said: “Naturally it was disappointing to see some of the initial report’s findings in December, but I’m pleased with the progress that has been made since then." She said progress would continue being monitored.

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