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IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

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As an individual I believe that Parish Councillors should look on residents more as customers i.e. as happens in the real world, rather than people who pay for them to carry out their wishes. I realise them there has to be some middle ground, but my experience is that Cllrs don’t like being challenged.

I am about to go to my PCs auditors about two issues about which I would seek a public interest statement. The first relates to the way PCs deal with charities they originate. This is commonly done  via something called the foundation model which involves the setting up of a management Committee to which usually the PC appoints trustees. In charity number one two senior Cllrs who present the case for the big annual grant and the voting on the decision are also the leading trustees on the Charity board. The charity itself refuses to fund raise unless it can keep the money and effectively this means the board makes sure the charity continues operating and survives on the  “guaranteed” annual grant. Yes the grant application goes through a voting process but the majority of Cllrs vote to accept the recommendation only because they don’t have the knowledge to vote against it.

Charity number two was a fund-raising charity set up to raise funds for a PC power commitment where the trustees sought to route money through it (and claim gift aid) for an separate outside non PC  project. After 12 months of correspondence with the PC the trustees introduced a new power to overcome the “objection”. This power is clearly in contravention of the objects and therefore unlawful, but they claim the Charity Commission authorised it. At the PC meeting the chairman suggested they set up a discrete charity, but his fellow Cllrs did not agree and could not see that they had done anything wrong. The trustee’s attitude here is that as they are acting as trustees, so they are untouchable i.e. they cannot be pulled up under the code of conduct and there is no process for the contravention of the Nolan principles.  The issue here is that since the revision of the Standards board there is no process for holding local Councillors to account for their iffy behaviour.

 

Now I appreciate I don’t entirely understand what scope the various auditors have but I would welcome views on the best ways the following should be managed

a)   Charities set up by PCs to manage a local service. I believe the best way is to hand things over to a members-based charity with elected trustees so the residents can have a say in the way the charity funds itself and what it does. Therefore there is a lesser risk of any conflict of interest

b)   The perennial issue of Cllr discipline. I understand the previous regime got bogged down in petty personal disputes but to replace it with nothing seems even worse. The public should have some form of recourse

I appreciate the above relates to my personal experiences but would appreciate others views on the situations I quote and whether I am wasting my time going to the auditors? Are these major issues or minor irritations ?

asked by (1k points)

1 Answer

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The public interest is whatever the council views the public interest to be, within certain legal parameters (most benefit should - but not must - benefit the local area, for example).

For example, there is a specific legal power (not a duty) to award a grant to a someone studying art. (really, there is!) If a Parish wanted to award that grant the Art Uni student would be eligible but a Medicine student wouldn't be. But the law allows the public interest to be served by awarding it to the Art student.

Therefore the auditor can easily and rightly say the public interest is being served.

Elected trustees - who are the electorate and what is the franchise - living in the village, using the charity, donating to the charity?- the parish council might not be great but there is a clear electorate and ability to elect different people

The answer is to get elected, or elect someone who will be more probing of activities the parish undertake.
answered by (5.8k points)
Somebody else. You seem to be saying that the only way to change the system is to become part of it.  But surely the electorate should have a process to hold the Council to account (probing of activities the parish undertake) and not rely on voting them out every 4 years. Almost everything I know has an appeals process whereas for PCs there seems to be none. The question I am asking is such a scenario "in the public interest"?
The only options available to you are: querying with either the council or auditor (but as stated, it is easy to demonstrate PI), or submit the council to judicial review. This is not just a Parish Council thing, but also District and County Council.

The whole principle is that you have elected these people and therefore the ability for someone unelected to question their decision must be extremely narrow and limited. - Basically it would need to be "Wednesbury unreasonable" for the council to have made such a decision for a court to overturn the decision. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Associated_Provincial_Picture_Houses_Ltd_v_Wednesbury_Corp

If you believe the Charity itself in breach, this can easily be reported to the Charity Commission, who do actively investigation issues.

Your other option would be the press, but consider would the press consider picking up Charity funding? - Unless you can make a strong allegation that someone is on the take, would they investigate it?
I knew I had read about them somewhere
https://www.localaudits.co.uk/reports.html
These reports are not what you might think they are.
They are letters from the audit firm warning the Parish they have failed to submit their AGAR return or exemption.

Only 1 (Essington) was how a financial failure, and this was a failure to register for VAT, and pay tax.

It is not about how the money was spent, which was correct, but that the council avoids £25k in VAT.
I am beginning to realise that the following is true
Constituents may wish to complain about the decisions, the procedures, or the conduct of members or staff of their parish council but there are few remedies available in this regard outside of the four-yearly elections to the parish council. The route to complain depends upon the subject of complaint: there is no single organisation which oversees parish councils. The Government has taken the view that parish councils are accountable to their electorate principally through the ballot box.  And the Charity Commission aren't much good either !!
I think that sums it up nicely.
One other thought, I thought a charity had a duty to continue to actively raise funds and not just sit on its collective backside and rely on a single source of income? Can someone verify that?
The upshot in this case was that two Trustee/Councillors reversed an outside project into an existing charity designed to raise funds for a PC responsibility. They used their ability to change the constitution to legitimise this but hit a brick wall when told that the objects could not be changed. They therefore inserted a new power (which was contrary to the objects) to overcome this problem claiming that the Charity Commission authorised it. When I asked the CC to confirm they replied that all complaints against Charities are undertaken on a Risk Based Approach and that their main concern is Insider Fraud. They declined to answer my question or contact the trustees. When I presented the facts to the Council the Chairman suggested they create their own Charity but the majority closed ranks behind the two senior Cllrs and said no "you carry on". Not a lot more I can say really. Essentially the whole charity industry is predicated on being able to trust the trustees.
I have recently flagged grants in my Council and got a rather nasty bite when I did. However the Grants Policies are the place to start and also to ensure the Councillors disclosed an interest and that it is on their register of interests.
Once you have seen the grants policy, you could request they be reviewed. My Council has 2 grants policies  but 4 different "grants"
The advice I recieved is a payment / grant over 2k should have a reporting mechanism (as should all grants for best practice) and it should be based on "need" (NALC) hence evidenced against some criteria.
Essentially you have the same issue I do. I've repeatedly requested a review of all our grants, and it 'mysteriously' never happens. The grants always go to the same place linked to the same Councillors.
It does not promote equality nor fairness.
They should of course be doing fundraising. Noone should be reliant on a grant. The fact they are and it appears to be ringfenced is concerning.
You may need to do some research and ask the question - Why?

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