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Council probes how it hired contact of Lib Dem candidate for £1k a day job

PUBLISHED: 08:04 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:36 04 December 2019

Karen Ward, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk. Photo: North Norfolk Liberal Democrats

Karen Ward, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk. Photo: North Norfolk Liberal Democrats

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The hiring of a £1,000-a-day consultant by a council has sparked controversy between the two favourites to become the next MP for North Norfolk.

Duncan Baker, the Conservative candidate for North Norfolk in the 2019 General Election at a hustings at Stalham Baptist Church. Picture: Stuart AndersonDuncan Baker, the Conservative candidate for North Norfolk in the 2019 General Election at a hustings at Stalham Baptist Church. Picture: Stuart Anderson

Freedom of Information requests, put in by Conservative candidate Duncan Baker, reveal how a consultant was hired by North Norfolk District Council for £1,000 a day after an introduction by his Liberal Democrat rival.

Consultant Peter Thomas was introduced to the council by the Lib Dem member for housing, Karen Ward at the start of May. Ms Ward is now standing against Mr Baker for the seat in the General Election.

Days later Mr Thomas' firm was awarded a £30,000 contract to carry out a review into the council.

Under council rules, for all work worth over £5,000 at least three quotations should be sought before deciding who to give the work to. The council said the documents uncovered by the Freedom of Information request had raised "some issues regarding the internal procurement process" for this contract.

The candidates for North Norfolk pictured at a hustings in Stalham where the heckling incident took place. From left, Emma Cortlett (Lab), Harry Gwynne (Brex), Duncan Baker (Con) and Karen Ward (Lib Dem). Picture: Stuart AndersonThe candidates for North Norfolk pictured at a hustings in Stalham where the heckling incident took place. From left, Emma Cortlett (Lab), Harry Gwynne (Brex), Duncan Baker (Con) and Karen Ward (Lib Dem). Picture: Stuart Anderson

A spokesman said they were "currently working to establish all of the relevant facts", but added that Ms Ward was not under investigation.

The council's head of paid service is looking into the matter, they added.

Mr Baker, who is also leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, said: "Over a number of months serious questions have gone unanswered as to how a £30,000 contract was awarded by the Liberal Democrats at North Norfolk District Council.

"I am calling for the Liberal Democrat administration to agree to an urgent independent investigation into this case and immediately provide a full explanation."

But Ms Ward said: "As I have worked as a business mentor and advisor for almost 30 years, I have an extensive network of suppliers and I am often asked for recommendations from colleagues in all sectors.

"I made several recommendations for potential suppliers for this work. All the recommendations have a track record of undertaking this type of work at the highest levels of the public sector."

Emails released through Mr Baker's request show that on May 5 - three days after the council elections which saw the Lib Dems take control - Ms Ward emailed Mr Thomas to set up a meeting for him to carry out a review of the council.

In an email to her on May 11 he wrote: "It was lovely to see you last Thursday" and set out his proposal for a "pacey capability review" of the council.

He said it would cost £29,300 plus VAT and expenses. He would work for 19 days at a cost of £950 a day plus VAT and his colleague would be charged out at £750 a day with VAT.

Two days later Ms Ward wrote back telling Mr Thomas she had got the "all clear" from the council's procurement department.

A week later the council's finance officer and lead solicitor signed a form requesting that the work be given an "exemption" meaning that it did not need to go out to public tender.

It justified the exemption by saying the work needed to be done "urgently" in June and July.

On May 16 Ms Ward told Mr Thomas that it was now "all systems go". "That is excellent news," he replied.

The results of the review have never been published but at a council meeting in September leader Sarah Butikofer said it had shown the council's leadership need strengthening and "project management skills" had to be developed.

She said Ms Ward would now be taking over "special projects".

Mr Thomas, who has endorsed Ms Ward on social media site LinkedIn, said he had worked with her 12 years ago for about six months at the cabinet office and had not had any contact with her since, until he was asked about the project.

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An earlier version of this article stated the council should put all work worth more than £5,000 out to public tender and seek three quotations. At least three quotations have to be sought for work valued between £5,000 and £49,999 but the work does not have to go out to public tender unless it is valued at more than £50,000. We apologise for any confusion caused.

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