'Call in watchdog' on contract deal

THE man at the centre of a storm over the awarding of a contract to run a council's communications department has asked for the case to be referred to an independent watchdog.

East Riding Council leader Stephen Parnaby wrote to the authority's chief executive yesterday, requesting independent scrutiny by the District Auditor of the process that saw a temporary contract awarded to Mercury Design & Marketing Ltd.

The company's managing director is Simon Taylor, a former head of communications at the council, whose previous company, TAS Communications, went into voluntary liquidation in February this year.

The council was among the list of creditors owed money by TAS after the company failed to pay rates of about 1,000.

Mercury, based in Hessle, East Yorkshire, was given the contract after the council failed to appoint anyone from a shortlist of five candidates who were interviewed for the post of interim communications manager.

The three-strong interviewing panel included council chief executive Nigel Pearson.

In response to questions from the Yorkshire Post, the council said the awarding of contracts of under 30,000 are "delegated to officers".

The Mercury contract is a reviewed monthly, is worth 5,333 per month paid in arrears, and cannot exceed an accumulative value of 30,000, the council says.

The row erupted when it emerged that Mercury had advertised a training course on its website that would be jointly run by Mr Taylor and Coun Parnaby. The reference to Coun Parnaby was removed after it had been picked up by the satirical magazine Private Eye.

Mr Taylor then wrote to Coun Parnaby apologising for using his name, which he blamed on "over-enthusiasm".

He wrote: "I have to say that the reference to you can only be put down to over-enthusiasm on our part in marketing the courses - none of which have ever been delivered.

"We should never have used your name in this way and we can now see how this has been misconstrued."

In his letter to Mr Pearson, Coun Parnaby said: "Dear Nigel, I know that you are looking into the procedure for procurement of the contract with Mercury Design & Marketing Ltd, but in view of the continued press speculation I would ask you to also refer the matter to the District Auditor."

Coun Parnaby also asked for further independent scrutiny of the deal in a separate letter yesterday to Mathew Buckley, the council's head of legal and democratic services and monitoring officer.

He wrote to make Mr Buckley aware of the position and said in the letter: "Notwithstanding the apology from Mercury Design & Marketing, a communication which was also copied to you, the insinuations against me continue, therefore, I would appreciate it if you could appoint someone who is independent of the Council to look into this and report their findings to you, as Monitoring Officer.

The Taxpayers' Alliance has called for a full investigation into the case.

The opposition Labour group on the Tory-led authority is also demanding answers.

It said in a statement: "East Riding Labour councillors have concerns over some of the alleged issues raised in the awarding of this contract. The Labour Group need to be satisfied that the correct short listing, employment and procurement procedures were adhered to and will be seeking this reassurance."

The District Auditor oversees public finances.

The ultimate sanction is to produce a public interest report, a document available for public inspection, although he or she can also refer cases to the Audit Commission.