Council spending

This is the time of year when councils must open their full accounts to the public. The Audit Commission Act 1998 gives local council taxpayers a right to view all the accounts and accompanying documents for the annual audit for 20 working days. This includes the right to inspect all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to the audit. You also have a right to make copies of any part of the accounts and documents.

By the end of June each year, most larger councils finish preparing their accounts for the financial year ending on 31 March. Local councils have until 30 September to approve their accounts, so look out for an advertisement in your local paper around this time or call the Treasurer’s department for the exact dates. This is one of the best ways to get information and certainly sheds light on dodgy dealings, though often too late to stop bad projects going through.

Few members of the public know about this powerful right of access and councils do little to promote it beyond the minimum required by law. When the investigative journalist Michael Crick went to view his the accounts of Wandsworth council, he found he was the first person to do so in 14 years!

The Audit Commission Act allows for no exemptions for commercial confidentiality, and is therefore one of the only ways the press and public can find out about a council’s full dealings with private companies.

The Audit Commission has published an online guide: Your Rights to Council Finances. This booklet summarises people’s rights to inspect, question and challenge councils’ accounts. Councils exist to serve the public. Most have helplines and helpdesks to help local people sort out problems they may have with services, benefits and local taxes and charges.

This is one of the few laws that gives people real power to hold their public servants to account, so why not use it.

4 Responses to “Council spending”

  1. Small factual correction – as the producer of the programme Michael Crick was working on, I should point out that he was actually one of two people who had asked Wandsworth for such information during a 14 year period.

  2. See Stirrat v City of Edinburgh Council, 1999 SLT 274 (upheld without written opinions in Inner House): “the right to inspect the local authority’s accounts and supporting documentation is for a restricted period only. However irksome to the officials it may be, for that period arrangements must be made to provide access to the documentation to the persons interested in it and access has to be provided within that interval of time.” Again, the background was that nobody in memory had ever asked to see full vouching. Charges cannot be made; see also SPH v. City of Edinburgh Council, http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/opinions/CA13_03.html (?perhaps different in E&W?).

  3. heather says:

    Thanks Martin for the correction!

  4. David Elis-Williams says:

    The position in Wales is slightly different. The rights are given by the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 and the corresponding guide is here :

    http://www.wao.gov.uk/assets/englishdocuments/WAO_Council_Accounts_A5_eng.pdf

    This year the date for closing accounts in Wales is end July so you can expect public inspection rights to be typically one month later than in England in 2006.

    The inspection rights do contain an exemption from disclosure of information about council staff, both in England and Wales (although differently worded).

    The exercise of these rights is not always as rare as is suggested. At my authority (I am a local authority Treasurer) the rights are exercised more often than not each year and we are prepared for this to happen.

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