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The council's hardback Minute Book - along with several other documents related to the annual accounts to be scrutinised under the Public Rights requirements - was not made available to two electors who'd booked an appointment this week, The RFO robustly insisted that the Minute Book was not related to the accounts and therefore she had not included it, and she would not include it at any point in the future. When challenged, the RFO admitted that she didn't have the Minute Book in her possession as it was with the Chairman who had taken it to his home after the last council meeting held on 16 June in order to sign and initial all the past year's minutes "in one go". This despite the fact that the minutes should have been signed n public at the first face-to-face meeting of our council after relinquishing Zoom meetings, which took place in May 2021. The Chairman also had the opportunity to sign and initial all the minute papers at the June meeting, but he didn't. As the Chairman was in attendance at the inspection session, he was asked if he could pick up and bring back the Minute Book from his home - a mere five minute drive away. He refused point blank to do so even though he had the time and means to make the book available for public scrutiny.
The RFO was asked why there was no Internal Auditor's Report included in the accounts. The reply was that none had been done or sent to the council as it was not needed under the present AGAR system. Is this the case? Up until now, our Internal Auditor has always provided the council with a comprehensive and considered report covering several pages, with constructive assessment, advice and recommendations to be followed up over the year ahead. The Internal Auditor's contact details were not published in the accounts and had to be requested from the RFO by email.
Among other documents that were not made available by the RFO for inspection by the two electors at the session were the published, signed and dated Notices/Summons/Agendas for last year's PC and Public meetings; all the ratified Bank Reconciliations, a written explanation behind the mysterious loss of several signed cheques for which there is no minuted account or record; the council's Asset Register which had to be amended because the first list included an item not owned by the council, the council's Cashbook Excel document, and the Clerk's time sheets supporting two overtime payments submitted under expenses vouchers rather than as separate salary claims.

It is hoped that all the outstanding documents and Minute Book will be provided by the RFO at another inspection session that has yet to be arranged. It would have been easier and less time-consuming for everyone concerned if all the relevant documents relating the council's accounts had been made available for public inspection the first time round. Is there a definitive list of these available anywhere online?

1 Answer

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My understanding is that the right to inspect covers accounting records and so I am not sure why you would need to see the hard copy of the minute book?  Minutes should be published online for the public to read and question so I am with the Clerk in this instance.
There is a requirement for an Internal Audit to take place but it can take place at any time during the financial year.  A lot of councils combine it with the Annual Return but some don't.  I think your Clerk was incorrect on their statement that it is not needed as it definitely is a legal requirement that it is undertaken annually and the report placed in front of Councillors to review and make changes if required.

You mention that you required sight of signed and dated Notices / Summons / Agendas for the past year - why?  This is not related to the accounts and should be available online.  They don't need to be physically signed, a computerised signature is satisfactory.  I agree that the Bank Reconciliations should be presented.  A written explanation should be forthcoming after the inspection - an FOI type request has to accept a period of time for response.  The Asset register should be published online too.  I am not sure about the payroll element of your concern but that could stray into protected information.

Your council could allay a lot of the issues you raise if they have an up to date website and an FOI publication scheme.
by (24.4k points)
May I ask you a question MrsAbster, totally unrelated to the original question. What do you mean by a "computerised signature". Our Clerk seems to think that a name typed in a fancy font is a signature. I totally disagree with this. If it was true that means anyone can use my 'signature'. But are you referring to something else? I do have a digital copy of my signature, basically a jpg file from a scan of my written signature, but would not give this to anyone as it could be easily be copied and pasted.
In the Local Government Act 1972 Schedule 12, it advised that  (a)“authenticated” means signed or otherwise authenticated in such manner as the proper officer thinks fit;  So some Clerks will physically sign the document, others will include a jpeg of their signature and others will use a fancy font.  From the legislation, any of these is acceptable. Hope that helps.
Thank you. I'm more concerned about the Chairs signature. Which has to be on the accepted minutes, AGAR etc. A fancy font could be used by anyone. The definition of a signature is quite clear and I think trying to substitute it with something else is a step too far. Especially now as we can actually meet face to face or pop into the clerks office when necessary.
That is why electors should see the originals of the signed and initialled minutes and agendas to authenticate them. I am sure Mrs Abster's comments are correct, however it's important to point out that a lot of people do not have access to a computer or have poor connectivity. One of the electors at the inspection this week does not own computer and has no internet access. It's my understanding that all electors have a right to view council documents that are in the public domain at any time throughout the year, as well as during the Audit period - and these include the Minutes - in any form they chose for their convenience. I am sure that it is also the duty and responsibility of councillors to check that all financial transactions of the council are properly administered - especially during the annual audit - as they are accountable to their electors for every penny they spend from public monies.
Must admit I find the idea of a 'hardback minute book' as being very out of date - do people still really use them? We have word document minutes that are signed/scanned/stored electronically - is that what you mean? The physical versions can be made available if really required. Agendas get a digitised signature.
Regarding the 'lockdown' minutes - I simply took a printout of them all to my chairman and he signed and returned them all a few days later - they had been approved during online meetings. I saw no reason to make a show of signing them all during a physical meeting other than ticking a 'correct procedure' box - he certainly wouldn't have read 14 meetings worth in one go before signing them!
That's exactly what we did Clerk975. The minutes were approved as normal during out online meetings during lockdown. I then went into the office when allowed and went back through them all and signed them.
Jann you are right that the minutes have to be hand signed but the summons and agenda can gave a computerised signature. The reason is that the minutes are a legal record of the decisions made but the agenda doesn't have that same legal weight.
Thank you for the clarification, Mrs Abster. However, at the arranged inspection some related documents were missing, and it was not possible to copy any documents that day. A request to the RFO for a second viewing got the response that a second viewing would mean the RFO having to claim additional hours so they were taking advice. No second session has been arranged, but the Vice Chairman has written to one elector from the first inspection session as follows, copying in councillors and clerk:
"If there is any subsequent 'viewing' I would like to have the opportunity to attend please (and will bring my own recording device and invite other members of the community of course).
"If any other councillors wish to do the same, please feel free. We may as well get value for money."
Is this intimidating and unpleasant response emailed to a taxpayer by a serving councillor (who is not the RFO) appropriate or acceptable? It would appear that taxpayers are being actively obstructed by the RFO, and prevented from scrutinising and copying documents from the annual accounts while trying to exercise their public rights. There is nothing in the 2014 Act to say that interested parties are allowed one opportunity only to view the annual accounts during the Public Rights period. A tax payer is also being subjected to bullying and offensive behaviour by a councillor, who surely has no legal authority over the Public Rights requirements.

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