Police could be asked to investigate the awarding of charitable grants to community organisations ahead of last year’s Lancashire County Council elections.
The then Labour-run administration allocated almost £500,000 from a fund to promote neighbourhood wellbeing during February and March 2017.
After the Conservatives took control at county hall, councillors supported a call from new leader Geoff Driver for an independent investigation into the process – which has now concluded that the money was awarded lawfully.
But members of the authority’s audit and governance committee – who have seen the confidential report – have recommended that the matter is referred to the police to investigate “if there has been any fraud, misconduct in public office or a criminal breach of electoral law”.
The final decision will be taken by a meeting of the full council next month.
In a private session of the audit and governance committee’s last meeting, a resolution was passed describing the report as a “damning indictment” of the process.
Members also expressed “concern” that current Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali – who was the cabinet member for health and wellbeing until May 2017 – personally approved many of the grants, including some for organisations in his own Nelson East division.
County Cllr Ali has branded the move “vindictive, petty politics”. But County Cllr Driver – who does not sit on the audit committee – said it was important that a report requested by councillors is given their full consideration.
“I expressed serious concerns about the process at the time and County Cllr Ali seconded the motion which I moved calling for an investigation.
“The report makes serious criticisms and I assume that’s why the audit committee felt the need to refer it to the police,” County Cllr Driver said.
“We’ve stopped individual cabinet members being able to approve things like this in their own right and it now has to come before cabinet,” he added.
Deputy Labour group leader John Fillis accepted that the previous regime should have ensured that the organisations in receipt of funding reported back to the council with details of how the money was spent. But he added that the Conservative group had taken control by the time any such reports would have been due – and so should have followed them up.
And he said that any councillor who genuinely believed that a crime had been committed after reading the report had a “moral duty to report it to the police straight away” – and not have their decision determined by votes in the council chamber a month later.
County Cllr Driver had originally called for the council’s external auditors, Grant Thornton, to look into the matter in December 2017. But ultimately, the investigation was carried out by independent audit firm Veritau.
COUNTY CLLR ALI’S RESPONSE
Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali said his role had been vindicated by the independent auditor’s conclusion that the approval process was lawful.
And he added that there was plenty of opportunity for any councillor to raise any concerns about the grants awarded under the health and wellbeing scheme at the time.
“All of the grants were published online after the cabinet decision had been taken and could have been called in [for further investigation] – they were never called in once,” County Cllr Ali said. “Areas represented by Conservative councillors also benefited from the money.
“This is vindictive, petty politics to distract the people of Lancashire from the Tories’ horrendous record in power at county hall. The police have got better things to be doing, dealing with the effects of Tory government cuts.
“It is wasting taxpayers’ money to score cheap political points," he said.
The findings of an independent investigation into the process by which the health and wellbeing grants were issued has not yet been made public.
The document was presented to a behind-closed-doors session of Lancashire County Council’s audit, risk and governance committee.
But minutes of that meeting have now been published – which include a summary of the report’s contents:
“The auditor concluded that the approval of the projects was undertaken in accordance with the county council’s decision making processes and was, therefore, lawful.
“However, the cabinet member should have limited their involvement to setting the overall scheme objectives and principles. Officers should have been asked to administer all other aspects of the scheme, including determining which projects were recommended for funding using pre-determined criteria,” the minutes say.
A partially redacted version of the report is expected to be published ahead of a meeting of the full council next month.