Responding to Acting Chairman’s Resignation Communications

In recent communications, shared via the Local Rag magazine and the parish council website, erstwhile acting chairman Bruce Millar has alleged that:

“…since Councillors Goldstone and Bolton joined the Parish Council there has been conflict which did not exist prior.”

Acting chairman Bruce Millar

While he acknowledges that ‘mistakes in procedures’ have become evident he has alleged that councillors Goldstone and Bolton are at the root of the Parish Council’s current issues.

In the interests of openness and transparency, this post summarises some of the key Parish Council issues which have become apparent since councillors Goldstone and Bolton were co-opted in November 2019.

Failure to comply with the Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities

During the Parish Council meeting held at Alverdiscott Hall on 11th March 2020 cllr. Goldstone raised the need for compliance with the Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities (2014).

It was clarified that the council is required to annually publish:

  • End of year accounts
  • Details of items of expenditure over £100
  • Annual governance statement
  • Internal audit report
  • List of councillor responsibilities.

At this point in time cllr. Goldstone had no knowledge of the council’s financial history and (perhaps naively) assumed that all of this documentation was readily available for publication and public scrutiny.

The 2014 Transparency Code states:

“The data and information specified in this Code must be published on a website which is publicly accessible free of charge. “

Yet nobody at this Parish Council meeting even mentioned the fact that the Alverdiscott and Huntshaw Parish Council had failed to meet these basic administration requirements since 2017.

The magnitude of this failing only came to light after Staci Dorey (Torridge District Councillor Monitoring Officer) was contacted and she shared copies of letters, sent to the Parish Council, highlighting the council’s Failure to Submit Annual Governance and Accountability Returns.

Acting chairman Bruce Millar has previously stated:

“In the course of our efforts we’ve discovered that previously accepted ways of doing things are no longer acceptable in these days of digitisation and rigid procedure.”

Acting chairman Bruce Millar

The requirement for compliance with the 2014 Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities is not new, it arose in 2014. Parishioners and the wider public have a right to see exactly how local councils manage their financial affairs, yet this requirement appears to have been avoided by the Alverdiscott and Huntshaw Parish Council for many years.

It is worth noting that if the publication requirements highlighted at this council meeting had been heeded at that time then many of the subsequent issues identified in audits would not have arisen. It should be clear that the council’s failure to meet historic transparency requirements has not been caused by the councillors who were co-opted in November 2019.

Financial Maladministration

The Parish Council’s failure to submit Annual Governance and Accountability Returns for the years 2017/18 and 2018/19 required that both internal and external audits were carried out in 2020.

The internal auditor (cllr. Rosemary Lock) was required to respond to a number of statements. In response to this statement:

“This authority assessed the significant risks to achieving its objectives and reviewed the adequacy of arrangements to manage these.”

…the internal auditor was forced to answer ‘No’ as the Parish Council had failed to carry out any financial risk assessment.

The absence of adequate assessment had been made very apparent when it was discovered that the council was using blank cheques, pre-signed by two trusted councillor signatories. When those councillors were questioned about this at the council meeting held on September 28th one of them (name withheld) stated that they had always done it like this.

This statement, from a trusted signatory councillor, demonstrates what erstwhile cllr. Millar was referring to when he stated that previously accepted ways of doing things were no longer acceptable. However, this fails to acknowledge the 2013 Reform of parish and community council payments law.

Importantly, it also fails to adhere to The Good Councillors Guide which states:

“…you should ensure that there is a system to reduce the risks of error or fraud, for example never sign a blank cheque.”

Good Councillors Guide

This council’s historic financial maladministration along with continued, persistent use of pre-signed blank cheques clearly has nothing to do with the co-option of councillors Goldstone and Bolton in November 2019.

External Auditor’s Initial Feedback

Due to the Parish Council’s historic failure to submit annual governance and accountability returns an external audit has been necessary in 2020. This required the submission of an annual governance statement and annual accounting statement. The form that was submitted to the external auditors (PKF Littlejohn) can be seen by clicking here.

At the council meeting held on the 28th of September councillors voted on each of the annual governance statements. For example, statement #4 is:

“We provided proper opportunity during the year for the exercise of electors’ rights in accordance with the requirements of the Accounts and Audit Regulations. “

Annual governance statement #4.

And the form states that answering ‘yes’ in response to this statement means that:

“During the year gave all persons interested the opportunity to inspect and ask questions about this authority’s accounts.”

Annual governance statement #4.

The draft minutes of this council meeting provide details regarding the manner in which each councillor voted. Click here to see a copy of the draft meeting minutes.

As can be seen from the meeting minutes, 3 x councillors voted to answer ‘yes’ to this statement, although the council had completely failed to provide access to the council’s accounts for the year 2019/20.

As previously noted, although the requirement to publish council accounts and governance statements had been raised at the council meeting in March 2020 nothing had been provided. Yet 3 councillors voted to tell the external auditors, PKF Littlejohn, that the opportunity to inspect the accounts had been provided.

Furthermore, initial feedback from the external auditors (PKF Littlejohn) point out the fact that the Annual Governance Statement declaration required either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, but the boxes had been incorrectly filled in with the numbers of votes.

“Section 1 has not been prepared in accordance with proper practices. The responses to the Assertions in Section 1 have been recorded as the number voting on each assertion, rather than “Yes” or “No” responses. Authorities may record the votes within the minutes of the approval meeting.”

PKF Littlejohn LLP

Although incorrectly completed the acting chairman Bruce Millar approved and signed the declaration for submission to the auditors.

Acting chairman Bruce Millar’s approval of incorrectly completed AGAR submission.

It should be clear that the manner in which various councillors voted to respond to the external auditors at the September 2020 finance meeting along with the incorrect completion of the Annual Governance Statement is not down to councillors who were co-opted in November 2019.

Additional Costs

It’s important to note that, due to this council’s failure to submit accounting and governance statements for 2017/18 and 2018/19 additional accounting fees of £1,152 were incurred. It’s ironic that a pre-signed blank cheque was used to pay these fees. Further charges from PKF Littlejohn are currently being incurred due to the external audit.

Parish Council Meetings and Minutes

Governance guidelines state that the minutes of council meetings are a legal, public record of the decisions of the council and great care must be taken in their format and production. The Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities states:

“Smaller authorities should publish the draft minutes from all formal meetings (i.e. full council or board, committee and sub-committee meetings) not later than one month after the meeting has taken place. These minutes should be signed either at the meeting they were taken or at the next meeting.”

Historically, the Alverdiscott and Huntshaw Parish Council meeting minutes have been produced immediately prior to each bi-monthly council meeting. This means they have not complied with the requirement to be published ‘not later than one month’ after the meeting. Furthermore, they have not been made available from a publicly accessible website, as is required.

These non-compliant practices have now been resolved and all meeting minutes are published from the council website as required.

Omissions from Meeting Minutes

It is noteworthy that the although the transparency requirements were raised and discussed at the March 2020 council meeting, this was completely omitted from the minutes of that meeting. Similarly, at the same meeting the manner in which the Parish Council deals with planning applications was raised and discussed but this important topic was also notably omitted from the minutes of that meeting.

Public Participation

It had been noted that the opportunity for public participation in Alverdiscott and Huntshaw Parish Council meetings has been completely omitted from meeting agendas in recent years. Click here to see historic meeting minutes documents which confirm that public participation was absent.

This has now been resolved and all council meetings include public participation.

Declaration of Members Interests

Another notable omission from historic Parish Council meeting agendas has been the requirement for councillors to declare any relevant interests they may have at every council meeting.

This has now been addressed and included in all meeting agenda.

Providing Adequate Notification of Council Meetings

Recent events have highlighted another area in which there appears to have been inadequate familiarity with legislation regarding council meeting notifications.

The Local Government Act 1972 states that 3 clear days notice are required. Further clarification from the governance toolkit states:

“Agenda for meetings of the parish council and its committees should be circulated and made available to the public a minimum of 3 clear days before the day of the meeting. Current best practice is distribution 5 or 7 clear days before the day of the meeting.”

It has been confirmed that in order to hold a Parish Council meeting on a Wednesday evening the absolute latest point in time when it’s permissible to post meeting agenda is Friday evening. The requirement for 3 clear days can include Saturdays, but can’t include Sundays, public holidays or the days on which the meeting is to be held or the day on which the notice is posted.

Therefore, posting details of forthcoming Wednesday evening meetings on Saturdays is already too late as this doesn’t provide the legally required 3 full days notice.

As recommended, best practice is to provide 5 or 7 clear days notice before council meetings which is being achieved for recent online Zoom meetings.

The notices for a Parish Council meeting that was intended to be held on October 21st were not posted to the notice boards until PM on Saturday 17th October. The absence of notices was reported to cllr. Goldstone by a concerned parishioner on the Saturday morning and the absence was confirmed and reported.

After being notified of this failure acting chairman Millar cancelled the meeting and sent the following message:

“I’m pretty disappointed, but not surprised at the apparent inflexibility to help move our issues forward. Sure, the notices went up Saturday afternoon, not Saturday morning – it wasn’t for the want of trying believe me.”

Acting chairman Bruce Millar

In this message acting chairman Millar clearly demonstrates his lack of familiarity with the legal requirements governing meeting notification periods as posting the notice at any time on a Saturday (as he has suggested) is already too late. This is highly concerning as parishioners have reported that, historically, this council has routinely posted forthcoming Wednesday evening council meeting agendas on the preceding weekends (Saturdays).

There is no room whatsoever for ‘flexibility’ when it comes to the law and the requirement to provide people with adequate notification. This means that any council meeting for which inadequate notice was provided has the potential to be declared illegal.

Concluding Summary

It should be clear that although acting chairman Millar has stated that councillors Goldstone and Bolton are the cause of current conflicts within the council the issues highlighted in this post have not been caused by them. Most of these are historic or relate to the perpetuation of historic practices which should have ceased long ago.

This post has summarised just some of the most challenging issues that have ‘come to light’ over 2020 but unfortunately there are many more which are, as yet, unaddressed. For example, the current Parish Council Standing Orders have not been updated since 1999 and are therefore so out of date they are hardly fit-for-purpose. This and many other aspects of basic council administration and compliance appear to have been ignored for years.

The identification and resolution of these issues and historic failings, along with clarification of the council’s obligations and responsibilities, is providing a foundation for compliant progress that should enable the council to efficiently focus on what’s important to the community.