STEP 1 – KNOW YOU RIGHTS
Many people are concerned about how councils spend taxpayers’ money.
The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 gives people the right to look in detail at how councils spend our money in the financial year.
For 30 working days in the year anybody who lives within the borough is entitled to look at how the council spends their money. Section 26 of the Act gives any elector the right to:
(a) inspect the accounting records for the financial year to which the audit relates and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and other documents relating to those records, and
(b) make copies of all or any part of those records or documents.”
Councils are obliged to advertise when the audit period is on their website and in the local papers. However, for obvious reasons councils tend to slip the advert out without any fanfare, so keep an eye out. The audit period is normally in June or July.
There is a guidance note which explains in more what you can and cannot do on the audit:
Who can audit?
Any interested person can inspect the accounts. An interested person is a council tax or business rate payer or anyone who pays fees or charges to the council. If you are on the electoral roll you also have the right to raise queries with the external auditors.
It is normal practice to visit the council’s offices to inspect the documents that you have requested. You can send a representative to inspect on your behalf if you wish.
You can ask for copies of documents to be sent to you, although the council may charge for this.
Limitations on the Audit
You can only review costs which are incurred in the previous financial year. However, if there are related documents (such as contracts) which were created before this date then you have the right to see them.
The council can withhold items which it considers to be “commercial in confidence”. However, they should demonstrate firstly why they consider that the information is commercially sensitive and be able to demonstrate why this overrides a public interest argument that the information should be made public.
You cannot ask to see documents which contain personal information, although you are able to see the salary of anyone in the council earning over £50K and in a senior management position.
STEP 2 – DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO LOOK AT
Many people get put off by seeing lots of numbers but you don’t need to be a financial expert to ask questions of how your council spends money. You don’t even need to look at the main accounts if you don’t want to.
To get started all you need to know is if the item you are interested in relates to money which was spent or received by the council in the previous financial year.
Decide what area you want to look at. This could be the sale of a piece of land or a particular supplier or project. If money was spent on it you’re entitled to look at it.
STEP 3 – DO YOUR RESEARCH
Your local council is obliged to publish any item of expenditure over £500. Check the council website to find the invoices you are interested in.
Research the company whose invoice you are interested in. You could find lots of useful information on the internet. Was the contract awarded without competitive tenders? Are there links between councillors/council officers and the company? Has the contract price increased dramatically?
STEP 4 – MAKE YOUR REQUEST
Request the documents you want. Click here for a standard template.
Do not ask to see absolutely everything as this could be deemed to be vexatious. Also bear in mind that council resources can be stretched at times, so making appointments should be by mutual agreement.
Make sure you get everything related to what you are looking at-contracts, variations, invoices and back-up.
STEP 5 – BE PREPARED
Once you have made your request the council may try to tell you that you can’t see some of the information requested as it is “commercially sensitive”. It is worthwhile having your arguments ready in response. Firstly the council needs to demonstrate why something is commercially sensitive-ie that it would harm somebody’s commercial interests if it was released. Secondly you need to have your public interest arguments ready-there may be reasons why the council should release information in the public interest. For example if the council have been stating that something is going to save the public money and you have good reason to believe this not to be the case then this could be a good reason for the council to disclose the information.
Remember the 30 day audit period is for you to inspect documents, not for the council to use delaying tactics. Try to negotiate but if you reach an impasse, Judicial Review may be necessary, although this can be expensive.
STEP 6 – ASK QUESTIONS
There should be a clear audit trail to demonstrate how decisions have been made and that they are in the public interest.
If there is something you don’t understand, is missing or makes you suspicious put your queries in writing to the council.
If you don’t get a satisfactory answer from the council, you are entitled to make a formal objection to the external auditor. However, you can only make a complaint to the external auditor if you find something that is illegal or if the council has spent or received money which it did not have the power to do. You cannot make an objection to the external auditor if you find that money has been wasted, although naturally you should still publicise it.
STEP 7 – PUBLISH WHAT YOU FIND
If you find something that the public should know, make sure you publicise it to local media. You can also tweet it to @PeoplesAudit or e-mail RightToAudit@gmail.com
Local audits be extraordinarily successful – a recent story from Yorkshire shows just how much can be achieved.