Fringe Box



Comment: Another Sad Failure of Openness and Accountability

Published on: 2 Oct, 2023
Updated on: 2 Oct, 2023

By Martin Giles

When someone refuses to answer questions it is natural to suspect they have something to hide.

Why else would they refuse?

Our justice system recognises this by allowing an accused person’s refusal to answer questions, aka a “no-comment interview”, to be stated in their criminal trial.

In the area of government, secrecy can be used to pre-empt any questions: if nothing is known, questions won’t be asked.

But secrecy breeds distrust and the Nolan Principles, with which all those in public life are meant to comply, require “Openness” which it defines as: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”

“Clear and lawful” is a high bar. It does not mean “unless it is inconvenient”, “unless the truth is embarrassing” or “unless reputations or political advantage might be at stake”.

Let us apply the Nolan principle to the current investigation into possible fraud and overspends connected with the Housing Revenue Account at GBC.

See: Councillors Told of £16 million Contract Overspend in Closed Meeting

The council, presumably based on its further checking of accounts, as promised in its budget reports, decided an investigation was needed into the overspends which have been discovered.

It is understandable that while they gathered the initial evidence there was a need for secrecy. Accusations should not be made without good evidence and if something improper is taking place those involved should not be alerted and given the chance to cover their tracks.

But once staff had been suspended, once contractors had their contracts suddenly terminated, it was almost inevitable that the story would get out. Reputations and livelihoods are at stake and those accused might feel aggrieved; our traditional sense of justice in the UK dictates that we are innocent until proven guilty.

Instead of going on the front foot and announcing the investigation into possible wrongdoing, typically, GBC only said something when forced to in reaction to questions from The Dragon. From the outset it made the council look defensive, secretive and on the back foot.

The council needed to appear the opposite – assured, confident and correct but that is not achieved by saying as little as possible.

They could have been open by answering these questions:

1. What is the nature of the suspected activity? How much money is involved? If it is uncertain, why?

2. How is the investigation being conducted, who by, what are their qualifications etc?

3. How long is the investigation likely to take?

4. Have immediate measures been taken to ensure the overspending will cease?

5. How will work to bring council houses up to standard continue and how will it be funded? What is the scale of the undertaking?

6. Is it correct that a significant number of council houses are not compliant with fire safety and asbestos safety standards?

Answers to those questions could have reassured us that the council was on top of the case, had considered everything carefully and was taking the right action.

Speculation is always inevitable in the absence of information. It is something GBC finds difficult to understand.

Overspends or insufficient contract management are not normally criminal affairs but poor financial management can allow, even encourage, those who are less honest to take advantage.

And even if there was no doubt about a major overspend, was a sufficiently strong prima facie case made to justify the specific staff suspensions and contract terminations or were they premature?

The investigation must be now completed swiftly. Justice delayed is justice denied. GBC’s track record on investigations does not inspire confidence but let us hope it is carried out this time professionally and skilfully.

Other sides of the story are bound to emerge. Any who feel they have been unfairly treated are going to say so and it is in everyone’s interest for truth to emerge.

Briefing councillors on the situation secretly, in a closed meeting, made a bad impression. What was the point if they were warned they must keep what they were told secret and not use the briefing to inform their constituents? GBC does not own this story alone, we all do, it is our money.

There should have been a comprehensive official statement and a press briefing as Surrey Police gave recently on the tragic Sara Sharif case. In a case attracting national attention, the police trusted the press with confidential information, explaining why certain facts should not be disclosed until appropriate.

The addiction to unnecessary secrecy at GBC has to stop if it is to gain our trust but we all know that first, the addict has to recognise and acknowledge his weakness. All the time the council hierarchy only complains about leaks, it simply confirms that it still can’t help itself, still can’t break the habit, still can’t see the harm it is doing to itself.

And it is not just a lack of openness that’s the problem. The council leader should have shown that she was on top of the situation, had assimilated the necessary information and was using her judgement to authorise suggested courses of action. As shown above, there were questions that could have been answered without compromising the investigation.

Facing up to the press is the duty of a political leader, especially so in challenging situations. It cannot be considered something to do only if he or she feels like it.

As an electorate we give permission to those we elect to govern us but in return, as the Nolan principles state: “Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.” This is a key requirement of a democracy.

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Responses to Comment: Another Sad Failure of Openness and Accountability

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    October 3, 2023 at 4:30 am

    It has become crystal clear that Cllr. McShane is not up to the job, and not prepared to comply with the Nolan Principles, and should go.

    She is not the first council leader to flout Nolan, but that is no excuse. Residents expect and deserve better.

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