Town Council : External Investigator Report Over Community Worker Contract

An external investigator report into matters surrounding the Houghton Regis Town Council's engagement and subsequent extinguishment of a contract to supply Community Services has turned up some extraordinary findings.

What About Youth? Ltd was engaged by the Town Council to supply services in 2011, in keeping with the Big Society ethos of the government of the day. Happy with results, the Town Councillors further agreed in 2013 to continue with the engagement for a further 3 years to 2016. However, the relationship between the Community Worker and the Council became strained in 2014-15, and acting appropriately on pressure from the community, in March 2015, the Council members called for the termination of the arrangement with one month's notice.

Over subsequent years the contracted person employed by What About Youth? Ltd came to claim damages for early termination of the arrangement to provide work and the Town Council was eventually advised by its legal advisers to pay an out of court settlement of  £28,859.11 and an additional £7,000 towards the claimant's legal fees.

The Council of 2015-2019 met many times over and above the normal expectation of Town Council meetings, specifically to deal with matters arising from the ongoing issue of the rights and wrongs of the contract between the Town Council and the Community Worker under a separate limited company. And those meetings were held privately due to the sensitivity of the business being discussed.

An external investigator was asked by councillors to look into matters earlier this year at a reported £600 a day cost to the Council.

One of the most dynamite aspects of the findings of the external investigator's report answers one of the questions that councillors asked him to investigate:

Q: What were the factors contributing to the entering into a contract with What About Youth Ltd, without appropriate safeguards for the Council in the event of early termination.

Report Finding: The simple answer is that the Council failed to enter into a contract with the company because the TC [Town Clerk] failed to execute the contract with the company. The TC has specific responsibility under Standing Orders to ensure that the Council complies with its legal Requirements in the conduct of its business. This, the TC failed to do in relation to a contract late in 2011 and then contracts which were let in 2012 to run from 2013 to 2016. It has been suggested to me that the TC was under such pressure of work and further, under pressure from members to deliver the Community Service Contract and these matters led to the contract not being signed. I do not find this to be an acceptable reason. All that was required was for the TC to review the contract and to sign it. A contract had in fact been provided by the company itself. The Council did not even have to devise its own contract. Accordingly, the failure to have a contract in place was a negligent omission.

Other findings include that:

  • in deliberating over matters during the 2015-19 council, some members may not have followed Member Code of Conduct in declaring their relationship with the Community Worker; 
  • The Council's Solicitor had provided inaccurate legal advice and there was no protection of confidentiality with the out of court settlement;  
  • another council officer comes in for specific criticism in trying to modify any disciplinary action against the Town Clerk in making a representation to the external investigator; 
  • there was nothing inappropriate as to how officers and elected members conducted themselves around the decision to terminate the services of the company in March 2015.

A portion of the report had been published on the 5th May on a Houghton Regis Social media page, not in any way whatsoever related to Houghton Regis News Desk. A further copy was sent to myself, as editor of HRND. Jan Cooper, the community worker employed by What About Youth Ltd, issued the following statement, "It is disappointing to see the report released in this manner. I can only reiterate my previous thoughts; The Town Council will be able to make a considered statement on the findings, in due course."

The new Houghton Regis Town Council was elected, on 2 May 2019, last week, and this time will include David Jones, who was the leader of the majority Liberal Democrat group on the council at the time the original engagement for services with the Community Services worker was brought in. It remains to be seen what the new Council of 6 Liberal Democrats, 5 Labour, 2 Independents, 1 Conservative (suspended from his party until July), intends to do with the external investigator's report, and what lessons, outlined in the report, they will take on board for the future procurement of contracts with outside companies.

Update: The Town Council will meet on 25 June at 7pm to discuss - Download Agenda