Worcestershire’s Conservative council leader Simon Geraghty was too “scared” of public opinion to share a damning independent finance review, a councillor has claimed.
Geraghty faced opposition councillors for the first time yesterday after the critical report came to light following a media Freedom of Information request.
The report by expert body CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) was only shared with an inner cabal of Conservative Cabinet members and senior officers.
Under questioning, a defiant Geraghty denied any wrongdoing or any regret about keeping the report out of the public domain.
His only “regret”, he said, was the manner in which the report came to light, exposed by an FOI request by the Bureau Local, a national collaboration of investigative journalists.
Instead he claimed the report findings, from June last year, were “not surprising” to him, that its contents were shared indirectly in public through later Cabinet briefings and budgetary discussions, and that he was neither obliged nor in support of calls to share advisory reports with the public.
It was part of a “blue sky thinking” process to work out how best to address huge financial challenges, claimed Geraghty.
He was appearing before the council’s Overview & Scrutiny Performance Board yesterday. (April 26).
His refusal to accept any wrongdoing drew the ire of opposition councillors led by scrutiny board chairman Councillor Chris Bloore.
Bloore accused him of keeping it out of the public domain because he was “scared” about the impact of its contents, which were critical of the council’s approach to its financial challenges.
Asked Bloore: “Why did you not share that particular report, funded by public money? You made an active decision not to include it in reports to councillors, as an appendix or anything else. If you were not scared you would have done so.”
He added: “The information in this report was alarming and damning about our financial position at the time…but you kept that quiet so we could not have a debate about it. That is a terrible indictment of the Cabinet system.”
The report, commissioned for £29,000 from experts CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) last year, was highly critical of the council’s financial plans and urged immediate action to address a looming crisis.
It recommended councillors bring the findings to the next meeting of its Cabinet and ensure its members were clear there was “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” in facing the urgent challenges ahead.
Yet Councillor Geraghty and fellow members of the ruling Conservative Cabinet chose not to share the report with elected councillors, including members of the scrutiny groups.
The report only emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information request by the Bureau Local. You can read Wyrelife’s story about the report here.
It was, said Councillor Liz Tucker, leader of the LibDem group, “a huge shock” to learn of the existence of the report through the media, rather than from the leadership.
She told Geraghty it was “not sufficient” to say the report’s findings were alluded to in later Cabinet reports.
She also expressed disbelief that there were no additional written reports, or exchanges of feedback, or follow up questions about the findings.
Fellow Conservative Councillor Elizabeth Eyre supported Geraghty, saying the cost of the report was “reasonable”.
The facts that emerged during yesterday’s grilling include:
- the report was commissioned by Sean Pearce, then finance chief, at a cost of £29,000 from CIPFA, an organisation he was a member of, without going out to tender. This seems to be contrary to the council’s own published tendering policies, which say that any spend in excess of £25,000 should involve “at least four tenders”. This “exception” was done with the knowledge of Geraghty, who felt it was within the scope of Pearce’s role as a senior officer to seek external expert guidance to help him in turn advise Cabinet about their financial options.
- Geraghty says requests for such guidance are within the remit of senior officers as part of the advisory process and to insist that all of those reports are “made public” would adversely impact their jobs.
- The findings of CIPFA were presented as a short slideshow by Pearce to a select group of senior officers and Cabinet members. There was no “report” or other written feedback or advice, other than the presentation, which you can view here.
- To inform that slideshow, CIPFA interviewed senior officers and “other individuals” (unnamed) about the council’s finances. This did not include any opposition members. This was the extent of their commission.
- The commission included £2,500 for an additional written report, which Geraghty said was not subsequently requested. As a result the OSPB has asked finance officers to write to CIPFA for a refund (nine months after the commission was completed).
Geraghty told the committee he wanted to involve all members much earlier in the budget setting process in future years.