- – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, examining the public record to establish how Potto Parish Council handles official censure, Police advice, Formal Compaints and, in particular, External Audit Reports from PKF LITTLEJOHN LLP (including the July 2022 Public Interest Report) – plus the ‘strike-out’ Judgment of Judge Alison McKENNA on 23rd December 2022.
This article was provoked by a rather enlightening and quite shocking statement in Potto Parish Council’s February 2023 Minutes:
This statement, effectively attempting to shut down and entirely dispense with the July 2022 PIR, was shocking because the meeting Minutes confirm that none of the 17 PIR Recommendations has been addressed as an item of Council business and, as we shall see, the Council’s suggested conclusions for the Recommendations are false, implausible, unsubstantiated, have already been rejected by the External Auditor and, markedly, are contrary to statute – they are unlawful.
Regular readers will probably have already discerned that there is a clear and consistent pattern of denial, opacity, censorship, obstruction, deceit and even intimidation in reaction to ALL critical input communicated to Potto Parish Council. This is confirmed by the following evidential indicators.
North Yorkshire Police (NYP)
When a member of the public was subjected to an unsolicited visit at home from an irate Council member, followed up by a stream of emails threatening a physical confrontation, NYP took the complaint of harassment and intimidation seriously and interviewed Councillor Ian Kenneth MACPHERSON at some length. As Cllr MACPHERSON still refused to apologise to his victim, NYP was sufficiently concerned by his wayward attitude that they
offered some ‘advice’ [link]
to Potto Council. Predictably, this advice was dismissed by Potto Parish Council as “inappropriate”
(see the October 2022 Minutes);
When the Council’s fatuous Tribunal Appeal (against being ordered by the Information Commissioner to provide information previously censored from the Minutes) was ‘Struck Out’ [link]
(i.e. denied) by Judge Alison McKENNA on 23rd December 2022, Potto Parish Council still refused to contact the complainant (either to provide the requested information or to apologise) and therefore, as I understand it, the Council now stands in Contempt of Court.
Neither the Minutes of the January, February and March meetings nor the Agenda for the April 2023 meeting of the Council contain any reference whatsoever to Judge McKENNA’s ‘Strike Out’ of Potto Parish Council’s baseless Appeal.
Thus, there is no public record within the Council’s documentation and – worse still – there is no evidence that the Chair and/or the RFO/Clerk has even shared with the other Councillors the knowledge that the Council’s Appeal has been ‘Struck Out’. Equally, there is no evidence that this very grave departure from legal requirements has been notified to either the Internal or External Auditor.
My 25th March 2023 FOIA request
to Potto Parish Council on this very topic is now out-of-time, the Council having failed to respond within the statutory 20 working days (a commonplace event) and my request is now subject to Internal Review.
Complainants and Whistleblowers
I have revealed that these brave challengers of wrongdoing – each to be commended for displaying a moral compass and a clear sense of right and wrong – are routinely vilified and subjected to harassment and intimidation by Potto Council.
An award-winning journalist submitted a Formal Complaint [link]
to Potto Parish Council in February 2023 about its serious financial irregularities, and
was subjected to baseless accusations and then reported (according to the Minutes) to North Yorkshire Police (NYP) –
who have apparently ignored the Council’s input as time-wasting nonsense;
2. When a whistle-blower exercised their statutory right in April 2023 to contact Mr Brisley (Potto Council’s Internal Auditor), to update him about a number of serious irregularities with the internal audit and the business of Potto Council, Mr Brisley responded (whilst ignoring all the valid irregularities) to try to intimidate the whistle-blower by claiming he had reported the whistle-blower to the Police. I suggest such action is primarily intended to dissuade other whistle-blowers, as whistle-blowing is not a crime – it is to be commended in the Public Interest.
The Council’s intimidation and harassment of whistle-blowers has been routine since 2011.
Good, well-managed Councils treat complainants as ‘free consultants’; poorly-managed Councils consider such input to be harassment and vexatious.
When an elector exercises the statutory right to highlight falsehoods in a Council’s accounts to the Auditor, Potto Council attempts to vilify these people by describing them as evincing vexatious behaviour. Potto Council’s publicity leaflet in September 2022 stated:
I suggest such action is primarily intended to dissuade other objectors, as objecting is not a crime – it is to be commended in the Public Interest.
1. Potto Parish Council is required to carry out Internal Reviews as a safeguarding step before the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can be called upon to take action;
2. Potto Parish Council has carried out over a score of these Internal Reviews in recent years; each and every one spuriously upheld the Council’s original decision;
3. However, these original decisions and Internal Reviews were invariably subsequently found to be faulty, either by the Commissioner or by another external authority;
4. This evasion of statutory FOIA requirements continues year upon year – there is no evidence of the requisite ‘structured learning’.
External Audit Reports
1. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the External Auditor investigated Objections to falsehoods in the Council’s Annual Accounts, finding them all to be valid, then requiring the Council to produce Audit Action Plans;
2. Councillor Andrew WILDE (Chair) seemingly seized total personal control of all these Audit Plans (rightfully, the duty of the RFO/Clerk – his daughter). He drafted both Action Plans in a vague and deficient manner. He snubbed/rejected/obstructed all external input to these Action Plans, including from the RFO/Clerk, other Councillors and, most significantly, from the Council’s paid professional advisors, the Yorkshire Local Councils Associations (YLCA).
No other Councillor seems to have dared to challenge this absurdity, which I suspect must be obvious to all informed readers; namely, that simply writing the Audit Actions into an Action Plan does not, of itself, address or rectify any of the ‘weaknesses’.
4. The Chair refused to include any of these Audit Actions as a Council Agenda Item of Business;
5. In July 2019, these Action Plans were deleted from the Council’s website (in breach of the Council’s Document Retention Policy);
6. The Chair has insistently claimed that the ‘weaknesses’ identified by the External Auditor have already been addressed, often years ago;
7. This persistent refusal to acknowledge or address these ‘weaknesses’ means that all the same ‘weaknesses’ continue to occur, year after year.
External Auditor’s Public Interest Report (PIR)
1. The Council’s refusal to acknowledge or address the two earlier Action Plans led directly to the four-year-long PKF LITTLEJOHN Audit Investigation, which culminated in the damning July 2022 PIR;
2. The issuing of a PIR is an extremely rare event, arising from only the most extreme instances of unacceptably inadequate Governance. The excerpt below, from the SAAA ‘Report on Auditors’ Work’, dated March 2023 states:
Four citations in five years of auditing nearly ten thousand smaller Councils. Potto Parish Council represents the very bottom of the barrel.
During the past five years, Potto Parish Council has been one of only two smaller Councils (out of 9,809 smaller authorities, as of 2022) with multiple Governance failings that were considered by the External Auditors to be so significant, and so endemic, that a Public Interest Report was deemed necessary and fully justified. This is an appalling and shameful badge of dishonour for Potto Parish Council.
3. Potto Parish Council’s PIR had 17 separate and detailed Recommendations for Potto Parish Council to address (the other Council’s PIR noted by the SAAA had ‘only’ 8 Recommendations). The Recommendations are not merely’ suggestions’ – they are legal requirements;
4. Potto Parish Council refused to seek any professional legal advice from the YLCA about any part of any single Recommendation in the PIR Action Plan. Indeed, it seems every effort was made to prevent such advice from being sought or received, as, once received, the Council would then be obligated to follow it. PKF LITTLEJOHN noted that Sheena SPENCE, Chief Officer at the YLCA, had “raised concerns” about Potto Parish Council’s refusal to engage with YLCA, (see the ‘Sticky Note’ annotations from PKF LITTLEJOHN, as displayed in PKF LITTLEJOHN comments published on the Council’s web-site:
5. None of the 17 PIR Recommendations has been actioned or properly addressed in the meeting Minutes; hence the ‘weaknesses’ remain embedded and ongoing;
6. All the valuable feedback from PKF LITTLEJOHN about the inappropriate structure and false content of the PIR Action Plan has been ignored and rejected by the Council:
7. The Chair’s defective and subsequently rejected (quite rightly) ‘Draft’ version of the PIR Action Plan has now been published as the ‘Final’ version, in breach of the specific requirement for approval by PKF LITTLEJOHN – and in breach of para 10(1)(b) Schedule 7 Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014:
8. Not a single Council Procedure or Policy has been amended following the PIR Action Plan;
9. The PIR Action Plan has effectively been ‘buried’, so as to hide the maladministration conducted by the Chair and/or the RFO/Clerk. This troubling evasion is entirely consonant with what the Home Secretary’s Panel delineated in 2021 regarding ‘institutional corruption’;
10. The Chair’s policy of denial and obstruction replicates exactly his responses to the two earlier Audit Action Plans (oddly, no longer published – a breach of the Council’s Document Retention Policy). There is no evidence of what PKF LITTLEJOHN refers to as ‘structured learning’ – indeed, the exact opposite is the case;
11. Not one single Councillor has realised that their input to Council business is effectively meaningless, due to the Chair’s autocracratic style of management;
12. Not one single Councillor appears to have realised that the Chair’s actions, having seized total and unfettered control of every single aspect of Council business, continue ‘to raise serious concerns about how the council is managed or led’.
13. Not one single Councillor has realised that her/his support for the Chair and RFO/Clerk is aiding and abetting wrongdoing and continuing to bring Potto Parish Council into extremely serious disrepute with all authoritative regulatory bodies and the wider public.
The fact that all Councillors still appear to believe that the Chair’s autocratic style of management is appropriate is utterly staggering – it is beyond logic or sound reason that, at the February 2023 meeting, everyone present tacitly agreed to ‘bury’ and ‘shut-down’ the PIR Action Plan. I suggest that this consensus constitutes a breach of each of their Oaths of Office and a breach of the Lord NOLAN’s Seven Principles of Public Life – which is a serious Code of Conduct matter. In any event, this consensus is unlawful, as the Agenda did not adequately describe the business to be transacted.
Finally, the fact that the Chair (an unpaid member of the Council) has carried out the RFO/Clerk’s role as an Officer of Paid Service (or at least ‘held her pen’), thus acting de facto
as a member of Paid Service (the RFO/Clerk) since 2011
, is a breach of s.116 of the Local Government Act 1972
116 Members of local authorities [F1 in England] not to be appointed as officers.
A person shall, so long as he is, and for twelve months after he ceases to be, a member of a local authority [F2 in England], be disqualified for being appointed [F3 or elected] by that authority to any paid office, other than to the office of chairman or vice-chairman [F4 or, in the case of a local authority [F2 in England] which are operating executive arrangements which involve a leader and cabinet executive, the office of executive leader or member of the executive]
Nevertheless, such persistent unlawful activity continues, unfettered and unimpeded by any authoritative input or censure.
I would suggest that this pattern of obstruction of all authoritative input is a textbook example of failed Governance and Accountability, which – guess what – was exactly the basis of the July 2022 PIR:
An Enquirer reader has alerted me to a rather interesting FOI request – “Information to verify if the 17 PIR Recommendations have been properly actioned”:
As the Council appears to have ‘shut down’ the PIR Action Plan, without having the necessary documents to support when and how
it addressed any of the Recommendations, this FOIA request may be one to watch. Readers may wish to click the ‘Follow’
button on www.wdtk.com
to receive notifications of any forthcoming updates. The requirement for the Council to have documents to support how it addressed the PIR Recommendations is statutory; see Para 10(4) Sch 7 LAAA 2014
(4) If sections 100C and 100D of the Local Government Act 1972 (availability for inspection after meetings of minutes etc) apply in relation to a meeting under paragraph 5 or 6, the notice required by sub-paragraph (1)(b) must indicate the documents in relation to the meeting that are open for inspection in accordance with those paragraphs.
However, the Council’s evasive response to this FOIA request indicates that it has no documented information to verify that the PIR Recommendations were properly actioned, nor does it have any documentation to support (much less justify) its premature shutdown of the PIR.
The next steps are to be determined by those in authoritative positions of responsibility and may include some or all of the following:
1. I note the PKF Audit Report dated 20 Oct 2022 stated: “We will be following up the Council’s progress against its [PIR] action plan…next summer”. This would suggest that PKF LITTLEJOHN anticipated the Council’s work to address the PIR would take some time (if done properly). Conversely, a premature shutdown of the PIR would indicate the PIR had NOT been properly addressed.
Perhaps an Advisory Notice is applicable (ref: National Audit Office (NAO) guidance document AGN-04) to ensure the PIR is properly addressed:
– or perhaps a Schedule 7 Recommendation (ref: AGN-04) is necessary to ensure the PIR is properly addressed:
2. I note that s.27(5) of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 states that an auditor must consider objections which ‘might disclose serious concerns’ about how the Council is managed or led:
3. Auditors must comply with National Audit Office (NAO) guidance; AGN-04 states:
It is clear that the Council has evinced a ‘failure to act’ properly or lawfully regarding the PIR Recommendations. It is reasonable to believe that this failure ‘would have an effect on the accounts’ of that body.
It follows that if further Objections relevant to the PIR Recommendations are made and substantiated for 2022-23, it will be demonstrable that the PIR Recommendations have not been properly addressed and this extremely serious problem has had an ongoing and material effect on the Accounts (eg: ultra-vires business and false accounting details likely giving rise to more additional Audit Investigation fees).
4. Auditors can also apply to the Courts to determine that an item of account is unlawful (ref AGN-04).
5. Accordingly, I would suggest that a Judicial Review is both just and necessary, as Auditors must discharge their duties ‘without fear or favour’. As the Council has apparently been granted a 70% reduction in PIR Audit Investigation fees, the potential costs of a Judicial Review are now no longer prohibitive. Clearly, Potto Parish Council’s desperate rearguard action is finally running out of steam.
How much more of this travesty of local government must the people of Potto endure under the WILDE regime at Potto Parish Council – arguably the most rotten and dysfunctional small Council in the whole of the country (out of 9,809)?
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