AN INDEPENDENT inquiry must be convened "as soon as possible" to investigate if there has been any misuse of taxpayer-funded purchase cards at Essex County Council.
Liberal Democrat county councillor David Kendall issued the call in the wake of last week's Gazette story, which uncovered how the council spent more than £5 million of public money on the cards in just 27 months – while the authority yesterday admitted it is considering whether to publish details of individual transactions on its website.
Fast food, groceries, CDs, clothing, cosmetics, flowers, confectionery and cinema tickets were among the 36, 281 transactions made between December 2009 and April 2012, prompting Brentwood MP Eric Pickles to call for greater transparency at the authority.
Essex County Council last week insisted the majority of payments went on Looked After Children, for whom the authority acts as a corporate parent.
This week, the council revealed that of 757 cards in use, 389 (51 per cent) were held by officers working in its Schools, Childrens and families department.
Calling for an inquiry to take place "as soon as possible", Mr Kendall said: "If Essex County Council truly believes in openness and transparency, it is vital we address residents' concerns on this very important issue.
"If there are found to be specific instances of misuse, those responsible must be held accountable for their actions and disciplinary action taken."
Meanwhile, Mr Pickles, the local government secretary, again referred to his own department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has reduced the number of P-cards it holds from 210 to 33.
He said: "I came to the conclusion that the department's credit card transactions should be available for inspection by the public.
"If the council were to adopt an open approach then misunderstandings would not occur."
Council leader Peter Martin declined an interview with the Gazette last week. However, he was happy to chat to BBC Radio Essex about our story, which he dismissed as "unwarranted" and claimed, but provided no evidence, that most of the money had been spent on children in care.
In a subsequent letter to the editor, he described our story as "ill-informed" and "plain wrong" – but on the latter point we have not received any request for a correction from either Mr Martin or the council's press office.
This week the Gazette once again asked the council leader for an interview and, once again, he refused, this time on the grounds that he was "not around this week due to other commitments".
We also asked if, in the interests of transparency, Mr Martin had any plans to publish details of all the county council's credit card transactions on its website.
A spokesman replied in his stead: "We already publish any spends over £500 and any spend listed on there over £500 for Barclaycard is for paying off the P-cards.
"It doesn't include the individual transactions and this is something which is, and has been for some time, in discussion."
Mr Kendall added: "I do find it bizarre that Mr Martin can be on the radio and then not discuss it with yourselves.
"In my view, he needs to back up what he's saying with some evidence."
For more reaction see our letters special - p18-19