Get your nose stuck into the council’s books

Get your nose stuck into the council’s books
The Big Issue, August 2008

Government bureaucrats spend a lot of money telling us what they wants us to know but very little on what we actually want to know, namely how they spend our money.

I discovered this first hand after putting MPs’ rhetoric to the test in relation to their claims of supporting open government and grassroots activism. I asked to see all the receipts for expenses they claim from the public purse. They fought for nearly four years before they were forced to concede this basic tenet of democracy.

Recently I discovered that for every person employed by police forces to answer freedom of information requests (what we want to know) there are on average 8.4 press/PR staff (telling us what they want us to know). In Thames Valley Police that ratio is 27 to one.

The same muddled thinking is operating in our local councils. Here we find numerous officials signing up to the mantra of ‘citizen activism’ and yet when it comes to the one real power citizens have to scrutinise council spending they are suddenly mute.

I’m betting few of you realise that August is the month when most councils and police authorities must by law throw open their account books for 20 days so the public can inspect them. This right is granted under Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. This law allows any elector or taxpayer in the area to inspect and make their own copies of all the detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills that are related to the accounts of the recent financial year for the council or police authority.

It’s a powerful right and one of the only ways for the common man (or woman) to see the nitty gritty detail of council spending. It is the only way to find out, for instance, how much police spend on informants (the Metropolitan Police in London paid out more than £2.2m to informants in 2006/07).

The end of the financial year is 31st March but the accounts aren’t usually completed until the end of July so the inspection time starts from then and can go until September. For a guide to see when your local area opens its books see the website or call your local council.

This tiny window is the only opportunity local people get in this country to see the full detail of the millions spent by councils. By law, notice of this time must be placed in the local newspaper but who of us regularly reads the legal smalls of our local newspaper? And even if you do and read, as Julian Todd did last month, that the City of Liverpool’s accounts would be available every day between 8:30am and 4:45pm from 2 July to 29 July, it doesn’t necessarily mean the council is prepared for the public to take it up on the offer.

As Julian says: “Now, this ad was not meant to be followed up, because when I presented myself between 8.30am and 4.45pm at said offices, nothing was prepared.”
He then battled with the council’s accountants before finally getting to see the contracts and details that were supposedly open for public inspection.

Where are the glossy ads or pamphlets telling people about this powerful right to hold their local representatives to account? Where will you find it on the website? Most councils keep very, very quiet about this public obligation, preferring instead to spend taxpayer money on propaganda. I recently received one of these ‘spin sheets’ from Kensington & Chelsea council and the Met Police telling me about ‘Anti-Social Behaviour and what your council is doing about it.’ This 8-page glossy is thick with photos of councillors buddying up with police, removing graffiti and working with youth.

What a waste of money. Give me the name and direct telephone number of my local community officers. Better yet, tell me the date and times when I can go and inspect the police authority and council’s accounts and see exactly what these people are actually doing about youth crime.


3 Responses to “Get your nose stuck into the council’s books”

  1. JP FIfe says:

    Is this law UK wide or just England and Wales? It might have been a bit more helpful to get this information before August rather than in September 🙂

  2. John Ward says:

    I had a resident of our council area (though not in what was then my ward) ask me about this on a forum a couple of years ago. I spoke to the relevant senior council official who said that no-one ever did, but to contact Mr X (name provided) in advance in someone does want to come along, and they’d have it all out ready. I passed this information along to the enquirer.

    I checked a few weeks after the period had closed, and found that they hadn’t been contacted and as usual no-one had turned up throughout the 20-day period.

    I have been getting the strong impression over the years that a lot of people like to complain at just about anything, but actually bothering to do anything — even following-up their own issue — is just too much effort for them.

    Ah, well: at least I tried…

  3. Richard says:

    I tried this some weeks ago with my own county Council (Gloucestershire). True, my request was wholly unexpected so nobody was ready for it. But they did try to be helpful. With a quarter of a million invoices, what did I want to do? I was offered a more detailed summary than appeared in the draft accounts and I chose a couple of items. This produced another lower-level summary – from which I chose a couple of items. I’ve chosen a couple of items from this next summary and I wonder if I shall ever get to the bottom level.

    I was just “flying a kite” to find out how it all works so I’m not especially disappointed in the outcome and reasonably impressed with the council’s staff. The idea was to get the lie of the land and be more effective next time. So what should I have done? What are the killer items to ask for? Couldn’t somebody who knows a thing or two suggest some good points of enquiry?


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