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Call for a Special Committee to Oversee Council’s Fraud Investigation Rejected

Published on: 7 Dec, 2023
Updated on: 7 Dec, 2023

By Martin Giles

Guildford Borough Council will not be setting up a special committee to consider interim reports on the investigation of alleged fraud and a £16 million overspend of a housing maintenance contracts.

Two council officers were suspended and five interim contractors sacked on September 12 and investigators from Reigate & Banstead called in. Surrey Police are also involved, according to GBC.

A Conservative motion for the formation of a special committee was easily defeated in Tuesday’s full council meeting. Only the nine Conservative councillors voted in favour.

Cllr Philip Brooker (left)

Proposing his motion, leader of the Conservative group Cllr Philip Brooker (Worplesdon) said that the amount of the overspend disclosed to members in September seemed “inconceivable” but that they had now been confirmed as accurate. He continued: “…because the possible financial loss of the council, and by extension to the residents of Guildford, is so high there should be some form of regular interim public statements.

“There is considerable public interest… leading to… an article in The Guildford Dragon.”

See: Sacked Contractors Complain of Slow Progress in GBC Investigation into ‘£16m’ Overspend

“In this latest article, it is reported that there are vigorous denials of wrongdoing and the seven former officers in the housing department who were suspended, or had their contracts terminated,  have yet to be interviewed by the investigators, despite their willingness to be interrogated.

“Therefore, I believe that it is essential that this process is accelerated. I can’t see why it cannot be up to a special independent committee to decide what should or should not be made public, as the investigation continues, rather than many of the officers and counsellors who were in charge during the period of overspending.

“Why, for example, can’t we have simple facts such as the anticipated contract values against amounts actually paid, or how many bathroom or kitchen fitments were planned against how many were actually paid for?”

Cllr Fiona White

But Cllr Fiona White (Lib Dem, Ash Wharf) questioned the motivation behind the motion. She said: “Is it to indulge in political point scoring in the council chamber or to make sure that there is a thorough independent investigation of the irregularities that have occurred with a view to establishing exactly what happened, who is responsible, and putting in place processes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“To my mind, the second is the most important. We must establish what happened, how the irregularities occurred, and whether any individuals are responsible. And we absolutely must make sure that we set up processes to make sure it can’t happen again.

“This motion does nothing to speed up the investigation, but it does run the risk of its independence. There is also a chance that information might be released, without anybody meaning to, that could cause problems in holding people to account at a later date.”

Cllr James Walsh (left)

Cllr James Walsh, leader of the Labour group at GBC, set out his party’s position: “We want answers not least because of the huge sums purported to be involved and the impact on our tenants. I think we all share a desire for this to go through the right processes and not rush through with new elements like a special committee bolted on.

“So, the Labour group will not be supporting this motion tonight. We feel it’s essential that investigation be allowed to continue unhampered by officers having to write interim reports or new structures to report back to. We will await the findings and act accordingly.”

Cllr Joss Bigmore

Cllr Joss Bigmore, leader of the Residents for Guildford & Villages Group, was more equivocal. He said: “I have sympathy with both sides of this debate. [When] leader I was advised not to say things and be as open as perhaps I might because of various constraints, be the legal or otherwise.

“But I also have sympathy with the Conservative position, that we’re in a vacuum of information and somewhat of distrust.”

He continued by suggesting that both he and the current council leader, Cllr Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough), recused themselves from roles that involved overseeing the investigation report as they had both had leadership responsibilities during the period under investigation.

But he then made it clear he would not be supporting the motion saying:  “I think the motion, as written, is hard to support because there is not enough information about this ‘special committee’. Is it going to be politically balanced?  I’m not going to support it, but I do think rethinking the membership of the  Strategic Project Board, that was announced at the Corporate Governance Committee, would go a long way to giving the independence that I think the oversight of this process needs in the eyes of the residents of the borough.”

Cllr Bob Hughes

Cllr Bob Hughes (Con, Tillingbourne), as seconder of the motion, concluded the debate saying: This is, as every councillor knows, a serious matter and there’s a substantial amount of money involved in this and I make no accusations against any individuals or any other sort of accusations. But it is unfortunate that the only solid information that is revealed in this is in The Guildford Dragon.

“That’s our only source of information. I’ve no idea whether it’s correct or not, because frankly this is not a council with a reputation for openness or a history of openness. And I’m delighted that the leader has said that she will amend the composition of the Strategic Project Board.”

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Responses to Call for a Special Committee to Oversee Council’s Fraud Investigation Rejected

  1. RWL Davies Reply

    December 8, 2023 at 5:28 pm

    To quote Cllr Fiona White [Lib Dem, Ash Wharf]: “We must establish what happened, how the irregularities occurred, and whether any individuals are responsible”.

    How could “individuals” not be responsible?

    Did the “irregularities” spontaneously self generate and go unnoticed?

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    December 10, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    There was once a time when national institutions held their officers to account. The Royal Navy executed Admiral Byng by firing squad in 1757 for “failing to do his utmost” to prevent the fall of Minorca. Voltaire wryly remarked that the British shot their admirals “pour encourager les autres”.

    Since the invention of Teflon, it seems responsibility does not stick to anyone in government or national institutions.

    Consider the Post Office’s cover up of its dishonest prosecutions of over 700 innocent post masters or the BBC’s cover up of the facts surrounding the Bashir interviews. It is now the cultural norm.

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