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Councillor calling for probe into Essex County Council card bill

By Brentwood Gazette  |  Posted: June 27, 2012

david kendall

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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.

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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

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  • Rhollamby  |  June 27 2012, 1:05PM

    russellquirk, I don't think it will make much difference digging up the past, maybe just let it go this time. I don't believe anyway that any particular politician of any colour is less self-serving than any other. That any is more open, honest and of relevance than any other to the people they otherwise purport to serve. In respect of the major parties, the whip system sees to that. Accountability of politicians is a very archaic and obsolete concept, I think. If politicians were truly accountable (or Honourable - sic) then many of them would surely have disappeared from the scene following the expenses 'scandal' - although I do accept that most were comfortable with what they did, as it was within the rules as they are at pains to inform us. A few were held to account for downright fraud (theft) but most remained in their posts. As I am sure you are aware, MP's tried very hard to exempt themselves from the FoI Act but the House of Lords would have none of it. I would not be at all surprised if in reprisal, the Commons now tried to emasculate the Lords somewhat, but then again that would be a bit transparent wouldn't it? Now, you have to bear in mind that as I am not a politician, have no particular political adherence, and do not work for local government, mine is the view of an outsider and therefore in the opinion of one who I could name, is not informed or balanced. Just as a point of minutiae, while I take your word for it that Cllr Peter Martin was in Brentwood last week, I do not necessarily subscribe to your opining that he was available. I was at my house last weekend but when my missus wanted me to put some shelves up in the study, I was unavailable. It is possible to be present but otherwise engaged!

  • russellquirk  |  June 27 2012, 8:36AM

    Strange. Cllr Peter Martin WAS in Brentwood last week and so he was available. I know because he was part of the local interview board that met with Cllr William Lloyd and I concerning our applications to stand for County Council on Thursday. Regardless, I look forward to seeing the evidence that must now be imparted by the County Council in order to give comfort to tax payers that our money is not being spent inappropriately. It is surely not the case that those at Essex County Council that we elect think themselves unaccountable otherwise? With elections less than 11 months away, such a stance would be rather foolish under the circumstances.