Auditors slam council over contracts

A shocking catalogue of mismanagement in the way a district council illegally issued more than £650,000 of contracts emerged last night.

A shocking catalogue of mismanagement in the way a district council illegally issued more than £650,000 of contracts emerged last night.

Investigators were unable to find any documents relating to how Waveney District Council first entered into an agreement with a private consultancy firm called Kendric Ash in 2003.

What they did discover, however, were regular breaches of strict procedures laid down to govern the way contracts are awarded and failures to consult properly over decisions. A report by internal auditors, presented to members of the council's overview and scrutiny committee this week, said: “It leaves the council open to either allegations of corruption or basic incompetence of staff involved.”

Following the revelations, councillors agreed on a proposal that all future contracts should be signed off by members of the authority's chief officers' group.

They were also told that new specialist teams of officers had been set up to improve the monitoring of the system.

Committee chairman Jack Walmsley said: “Procedures were not followed and this kind of thing must not happen again. We have got to stop what has been going on in the past.

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“The issue is that procedures that are there are not being followed; people haven't done what they should have done. It is about how to change the whole culture.”

Last December, the EDP revealed how the council had brought in reputable consultancy firm Kendric Ash to improve the performance of its benefits service. European legislation stipulates any outlay of more than £144,371 should go through the tendering process where work is advertised and awarded on the basis of strict criteria.

The report added: “The amount of money spent to date with Kendric Ash (£675,193) would have meant that a full tender process should have been carried out at the start (there were indications at the beginning that this would be a long relationship).

“Therefore, not only have Waveney District Council contract procedure rules been broken, it would appear EU regulations have as well.”

The report also reveals how on one occasion, contract procedure rules were wrongly suspended when it was stated: “that the option of going out to tender would mean losing the good working relationship and could lose the experience and knowledge of the contractor”.

The contract with Kendric Ash was finally torn up last year and a council spokesman said officers were currently negotiating the terms of their exit.

The report continues: “The initial appointment of the contractor appears to have been by a director, who has since left the authority, with retrospective approval from the executive.

“The initial failure appears to have been in the understanding and competency of the officers concerned and then in a subsequent failure in the consultation process for reports.”

A spokesman for Kendric Ash, which has not been accused of any wrong-doing, declined to comment.

The scrutiny committee is also investigating the poor performance of Waveney's housing-benefits department after it emerged last month it was taking nearly double the national average in processing claims. Council bosses have pledged to improve the service.