Council Capers

Now we have the mayor for Liverpool being interviewed by the police under caution, in relation to the ongoing saga of Liverpool Direct and its rotten Lancashire counterpart. This is the same issue which led directly to the suspension of Liverpool Council’s chief executive, Ged Fitzgerald. He has also been interviewed under caution on the same issue. Logically, one might suppose that, by the same criterion, the mayor should now be suspended himself. Who, however, would exercise that suspension? Would he suspend himself? In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Cunard Building, nothing appears to be impossible.

This is an extremely serious situation. The mayor and his chief executive are both embroiled in these heavy police enquiries, potentially facing charges. Meanwhile, a rudderless council executive arm is not only minus its head of paid service, it is still without a senior planning officer and without a director of finance. The loss of the director of finance – Becky Hellard – is more problematic than a missing mayor or absentee chief executive. She is, after all, the Section 151 monitoring officer under the Local Government and Housing Act of 1989.

The powers and responsibilities of such a monitoring officer are extensive, and set out in detail under section 25 of the Local Government Act of 2003. For example, the monitoring officer must approve budgetary estimates and reserves. In the case of Liverpool, who will fulfil this function, given that the designated officer has taken gardening leave because, it is said, that down the line, she may be a prosecution witness if charges are brought against her current superiors?

Councillors should take particular stock of this farcical situation as they could well be left in a dire legal predicament. The Accounts and Audit Regulations of 2011 are clear in establishing the responsibility of elected members for maintaining “a sound system of internal control including arrangements for the management of risk”. There is no ambiguity about the legal duties of councillors. They cannot, for example, plead ignorance if there was anything untoward in the accounts presented by the council. Of course, in normal circumstances, there would be the monitoring officer to provide guidance where it was required. Currently, there is no one filling that role.

Remember, too, that under section 15 of the Local Government Act of 1999, the Secretary of State has wide powers to intervene in a council in breach of section 151 requirements, including the power to send in commissioners. It just might also be politically expedient in such circumstances for a Conservative Secretary of State to do so with a Labour council, especially in the run-up to local elections.

There are lessons in the tragi-comic conduct of Liverpool Council in recent years from which we can all learn. What elected councillors ought not to do is to bury their heads in the sand over such problematic issues as Section 151 demands. In the case of Liverpool, they ought to gather their collective wits, to address – and, perhaps, remedy – a rapidly deteriorating state of affairs.

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