Exclusive: Keighley Council ‘bordering on the line of corruption’

Councillor Michael Westerman. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
Councillor Michael Westerman. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
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A COUNCIL was warned by a member of its own staff that its failure to comply with financial regulations was so serious that it was “bordering on the line of corruption” and that public money had not been safeguarded.

The employee at Keighley Town Council issued an urgent note to councillors in July this year as external auditors carried out an investigation into the 2012-13 accounts which led to a damning report last month and prompted police to start an investigation.

Councillors were warned five months ago that cheques were being signed without the correct authority and that the council account was being used for non-council business.

The employee also raised serious concerns about payments, for work carried out, to the family members of councillors and officers.

In a confidential note to councillors, which has been seen by The Yorkshire Post, the employee said: “It is improper for family, friends or relatives of officers or councillors to use public funds for their own personal interests. This is a common problem with this council which is not being addressed and councillors are not declaring their financial and pecuniary interests.”

The note also asked whether posts which had been filled by family members had been advertised - a question which independent minded councillors are continuing to ask at committee meetings.

The employee complained about sending “numerous emails” to senior councillors “with very little follow-up action.”

“The situation is now getting increasingly worrying. This is leaving the council and the individuals at high risk...I would urge this council to take responsibility and start working within its designated framework and would also remind councillors that this council is under investigation by the external auditors for issues that relate back to 2012/13.”

Last month, the concerns of the employee were vindicated with the publication of a public interest report issued by external auditors which revealed a catalogue of weaknesses and poor governance.

A fuller report, marked confidential, highlighted the employment of Howard Spink, husband of deputy clerk Debbie Spink, as the council’s demand response officer. It also cited payments to the husband of a former officer, who was believed to providing supplies to council.

Whilst the audit report did not state the payments were improper, it did question how such payments were authorised: “Where payments are made to persons connected to officers of the council such as these, there is no evidence on the face of the invoices provided to indicate who has authorised the payments or whether additional controls have been put in place to specifically approve payments to related parties.”

Mrs Spink declined to comment. It is understood her husband no longer works for the council.

Internal auditors also picked up on officers’ declarations of interests in a report issued at the end of November which noted one occasion where payment had been authorised “by an individual who is a close relative of the person paid.”

This report said policies were in place for councillors but not for officers and urged rules to be introduced so that interests can be routinely declared.

The Yorkshire Post has established that two serving councillors have close family members who have been paid for work carried out.

Councillor Michael Westerman’s brother Adrian is a part-time Mayor’s steward and Councillor Judith Brooksbank’s husband Gerald worked in the shop in the council-owned civic centre and was paid £9,400 between June 2012 and March 2013.

Coun Westerman said he had no involvement in his brother’s appointment and did not know if the post was advertised. He had not signed the register of interests after legal advice deemed it not necessary, he said.

Councillor Brooksbank, who has declared the interest on the register, could not be contacted for comment.

it is understood that Mr Brooksbank no longer works for the council.

Mayor Graham Mitchell, the council’s chairman, declined to answer a question about the employment of family members, saying he did not trust the reporter, claiming he had twice been misquoted.

In an exchange outside the civic centre, Councillor Mitchell told the reporter to put away his pen and notepad before correcting him on the wording of a question and then suggesting that it was time for the Press to leave the council alone.

Keighley MP Kris Hopkins said the further revelations were “disturbing” and he expected police would consider them.

“There is clearly a lot more disturbing detail in this (internal audit) report which I would expect West Yorkshire Police to properly consider as part of its ongoing investigation.”

He reiterated his call for Keighley Town Council to ask for help from a neighbouring authority.

“Keighley Town Council cannot and must not wait for these enquiries to reach their conclusion before it sets about getting its finances in order.

“And it can’t be allowed to muck out its own stables and should instead seek third party support from a neighbouring authority, whether it be Bradford, Craven or perhaps another parish council in the locality. “Public confidence must be regained and an internal solution is not an answer to any of the huge questions if faces.”

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said he was “very concerned” by the report by external auditors.

“I am very concerned by this report, and action clearly needs to be taken by the council to address the clear failures it reveals. The town council has considered the report in public at a council meeting, and has issued an apology.

“I now expect the council to act on these findings, and it will be up to the voters to make a judgement on the council’s actions at the ballot box.”

KEIGHLEY TIMELINE

• 2002

Keighley Town Council formed.

• October 2012

Resident and retired accountant Elizabeth Mitchell starts taking an interest in the council after spotting “offensive” picture on website of partially clothed crime ‘victim’ used to promote Police Museum.

• November 2012

Council tells her the image belongs to Police Experience, “a limited company” - but no listing with Companies House.

Mrs Mitchell writes to council over financial inaccuracies in accounts.

• December 2012

Council dismisses her concerns about finances.

• January 2013

Mrs Mitchell speaks to council meeting about discrepancies in accounts

• February 2013

Council critics set up Facebook group, Cavetown Council, which recalls an old word for Keighley.

Town council puts up precept by 72 per cent, partly to prop up struggling civic centre.

• May 2013

Mrs Mitchell reported to police by council for making repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Police tell council it is her right to do so.

Keighley MP Kris Hopkins expresses concerns over civic centre debt.

Council critics discover catalogue of poor governance in accounts.

• June 2013

Eight people, including a serving councillor, make legal objections to council accounts.

Mayor Graham Mitchell calls critics “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.

• July 2013

Objectors attempting to film a council meeting are escorted from building by police.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles says council “lost the plot” when it ejected those trying to film the meeting.

Council officer raises

• September 2013

Petition of 1,600 names in favour of filming handed to council.

• December 2013

External auditors acknowledge objections will be investigated

• March 2014

Objectors interviewed by external auditors

• June 2014

Further objections lodged against 2013-14 accounts.

• November 2014

Damning external audit report published.

Keighley MP Kris Hopkins calls for West Yorkshire Police to investigate, calling spending “reckless”.

West Yorkshire Police confirm it is looking into claims of wrongdoing.

Confidential external audit report is leaked.

• December 2014

Councillors pass motion apologising to electors for “falling short” and agree to thank objectors for highlighting the issues.

MP Kris Hopkins calls for a neighbouring council to step in to help the town council.

New council officer, Tom Ferry, formerly of the Royal Corps of Signals, takes up post of town clerk and civic centre manager.

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