Exclusive: Councils’ failings over £7m conman revealed

DETAILS of management failings and missed opportunities that allowed a public servant to run up multi-million pound local authority debts can be revealed for the first time today.

Four councils in South Yorkshire have been left with debts of about £7m as a result of crimes orchestrated by Mike Buckley, who managed South Yorkshire Trading Standards Unit (SYTSU) until his death in 2005.

It was then discovered he had been fiddling the accounts for years undetected by managers at Sheffield Council and the committee with members from all four authorities, which was also responsible for the unit.

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Sheffield Council commissioned the Newton Report to establish what went wrong and why Buckley’s “quite unrefined” methods succeeded. That council was responsible for managing Buckley and will eventually publish the report. The Yorkshire Post has seen a copy, however, and local government expert Neil Newton reveals a series of opportunities where Buckley’s deceit could have been identified years before his death, potentially saving millions of pounds.

“There have been institutional failures, managerial and supervisory failures and failures in the systems designed to detect accounting irregularities,” states a draft version of the report.

Mr Newton’s investigation revealed one of Buckley’s bosses was instructed to avoid “lording it” over the unit’s manager, then seen as a reliable public servant. When a colleague did question Buckley’s performance he was accused of “gossiping”, although the Newton report identifies that incident as a missed chance “to expose Buckley”.

SYTSU was set up in 1986 to provide specialist weights and measures services for South Yorkshire’s four district councils, such as calibrating pub optics and shop weight scales. They ran it as a joint venture, but with Sheffield Council taking “lead” responsibility for management.

Under Buckley’s management, it moved away from its original work and into specialised commercial services, for sectors like the aircraft industry. Mr Newton’s report shows Buckley was a highly effective con-man and was able to make increasingly ambitious requests for investment without question from managers.

In one instance, he duplicated information in two consecutive years when seeking permission to spend more than £800,000. The reports were both accepted.

“Whether Buckley was becoming increasingly desperate or careless or simply trusting his luck with a change of system, we shall never know, but it could have tripped him up,” said the report.

It also shows Buckley made ambitious claims that investments would bring new jobs, yet most failed to materialise. At one point, the department was credited with completing 90,000 calibration jobs in a year by Buckley when the real total was probably only 3,000.

“As the years went by Buckley’s claims of items calibrated became more and more divorced from reality,” states the report. “Nevertheless they were accepted as fact at the highest level.”

When he asked to spend more money, the technical justification he provided with his requests was described as “laughable”. As finances worsened, Buckley started creating documents which never left his office but made it appear his unit was in profit.

Some were issued to companies which no longer traded with the unit, others were to apparently fictional businesses. That appeared to have gone unquestioned. Mr Newton acknowledges Sheffield Council lost some experienced finance officers in the 1990s but says that does “not wholly excuse the failures chronicled”.

Mr Newton is also critical of the Joint Committee, which appeared to accept Buckley’s claims without question but also states that “councillors were not provided with adequate explanation or preparations for the duties expected of them”.

Sheffield Council has declined to comment ahead of the report’s official publication.

A full report and background appears in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post.