Council Appoint Independent Investigator Over Out of Court Payout

Labour Councillors walked out of a Special Town Council Meeting on 20th December 2018.

The press and public were recommended to be excluded from the main business to be discussed, but all the councillors decided to hold the meeting in public.

The meeting was held to appoint an independent investigator to probe into the circumstances which lead to the Town Council making an out-of-court settlement of £28,000 to a former contractor who provided youth services and whose contract was scrapped in 2015.

The decision to appoint an independent investigator was made in principle at the 8th October meeting, in which the three Labour councillors attending (Slough, Swain, and Welsh) all voted for the motion.

41 minutes into the recording of this week's meeting, and before a vote was taken on the resolution below, the four Labour councillors in attendance (Kennedy, Welch, Slough, and Dixon-Wilkinson) walked out, after saying they were unhappy with the resolutions.

Cllr Kennedy, for the Labour group, said they had several problems with the resolutions and wanted to go away and look at this. He said the legal issue was a whole new issue that had been brought in. Cllr Welch was concerned that they were going to be rushing into a decision due to a bad decision that was made a couple of months ago.

Cllr Hillyard replied the matter had been in discussion since the 8th October, so anyone who had anything else to put forward could have done if they had chosen to, and the resolution included clauses that anyone could submit questions.

As the Labour group departed, Cllr Abbott quipped, "You've had 4 years."

The councillors remaining towards the end of the meeting passed resolutions to appoint an independent external investigator to look into matters concerning advice that was given to the council and to give an opinion on compensation previously paid out (read in full below)

The meeting was recorded and placed on The Town Council's YouTube Page.

The Resolution in Full

Cllr David Abbott read out the resolutions at the end of the meeting,

“Following the resolutions passed on 8 October and 5 December in relation to the appointment of an independent investigator, this additional resolution is made to provide clarity to the procedures detailed, and thus to assist in their implementation.

     1.    Under Standing Order 27(a)(ii) that Councillors Abbott and Hillyard are nominated and authorised to issue orders, instructions and/or directions jointly in relation to this and the previous resolutions referred to above. Members are invited to submit any specific questions they consider need answering to the nominated members, who will advise a deadline in due course.

     2.    The independent investigator is authorised, but not restricted to, the consideration of all aspects of the legalities, policies, and governance, as well as the conduct and decisions made or lack of decisions made by members and officers in relation to the circumstances which led to a claim being made against the Town Council, the settlement itself, and changes already made to procedures.

     3.    The independent investigator will also consider the legal advice received and the support given in this matter, and shall give an opinion on the apology received and sum offered by way of compensation; is thus authorised to request and review the relevant file(s) held by external solicitors (and counsel if any) who had conduct of the matter forming the subject of this resolution and if necessary to liaise with the said external solicitors (or counsel) to clarify and review the legal advice given to the Town Council.

     4.    Lastly, advice from SOLACE is that the investigation is unlikely to exceed five working days. On this basis, the independent investigator expects to complete his work and produce his report by the end of January 2019. The report the independent investigator produces shall conclude by detailing any issues and/or other failures found, whether changes already made to procedures and policies are sufficient, and provide recommendations for members to consider.”

Note: Standing Order 27 reads:
     “Unless authorised by a resolution, no councillor shall:
         i    inspect any land and/or premises which the council has a right or duty to inspect; or
         ii    issue orders, instructions or directions.”

After the meeting, The Labour Group and Cllr Abbott wrote on Houghton Regis News Desk Facebook Page,

Dunstable and Houghton Regis Labour Party “Yet more problems in Houghton Regis Town Council...
£615 a day is a lot of money. That is the sum being paid by HRTC to an external Investigator to produce a report. Why employ them unless there is a convincing case that they are needed?
Officers had supplied us with the necessary information to guide the Councillors last night, but this was ignored. Instead the Independents and Lib Dems used underhand methods to force through a resolution which gave the Council no time to properly discuss these crucial and costly matters.
We couldn't accept spending thousands of pounds without careful scrutiny - the Council had already asked for and received a report that covered all the key issues, and therefore left the meeting.
The Labour Team have played a full part in this council since 2015 - our points of conflict with the Independents and Lib Dems have been with regard to unwise spending and the dismissing of expert advice. This latest decision covers both of these, and is a sad indictment of the priorities of many councillors.”

Cllr David Abbott —
“This whole matter has been a cloud over this current council which was elected in 2015. It concerns an out-of-court settlement in relation to matters occurring under the previous council. Not included in the settlement is an unquantifiable amount of officer and member time dealing with this sorry affair. Including legal costs, the pay out exceeded £40,000 - and it was our townsfolk’s money.

“The outlay of the amount of our residents money this came to, and as far as I am concerned (having voted against the settlement) means that we need to be sure that sufficient changes have been made to policies and procedures to make sure that there will never be a repetition. There was an internal report which was provided to just me and one other councillor; there had also been changes to procedures made. My view was that not all the issued raised had been dealt with and in the same way that the town council not only has an internal audit of its finances, it also has an external audit, the only sure way to know that any errors or deficiencies have been rectified is to have an appropriately qualified external person look at what happened, the changes that have taken place, and tell us if these changes are sufficient. The external audit in the first three years of this council has cost £5,200; this external investigation will cost much less than this.

“The second element that arose this Autumn was that the lawyers contracted by the town council may not have given the best advice. My view is that they sold us short, which is evidenced by them already offering a token apology and proffering a £500 cheque as a good will gesture: I think the apology is insufficient, and the amount offered derisory.

“It is strange that Labour group members are now against the investigation, whereas they were for it before. At last night’s meeting one claimed that they were misled at the Town Council meeting on 8 October when in private session a motion was passed (with no attending member voting against it) where all 3 of their members voted in support. The first paragraph of which read:

' For the Chairs of Personnel and Corporate Services to immediately take steps to instruct a suitable independent person to undergo a full investigation into the events that led to Houghton Regis Town Council making an out-of-court settlement to What About Youth Limited.”

“Are the Labour group happy that the council spent over £40,000 of our residents money? Do they not see it as reasonable that the reasons for this happening are properly looked at? If any resident alleges a cover-up, or a whitewash, the ONLY valid defence to this is for independent eyes to look at this and report their findings. To do anything less leaves questions unanswered, and a complete disregard of our elected responsibility to look after our residents money with probity and care. From paperwork I have examined in the years before I was elected, serious errors were made - where even the documentation was gravely flawed - and not just typos. I want to make sure that in future such basic errors can never again be made.

“I see that in a reply to a comment by Mark Jones, the Labour group mentions the need for scrutiny. When the vote was taken to pay the out-of-court settlement, due to abstentions it was the Labour votes for the motion that carried it. My recollection was that I was the only councillor to vote against.

“Like many of our residents, I care about my town. I have never been involved in politics before, but put myself up for election in 2015 because I thought I would be able to make a positive difference. I did not expect to spend many, many hours dealing with litigation on an issue that should never have happened in the first place.”