It's Your Right to Know

The Accounts and Audit Regulations

The 2003 regulations were amended in 2011, compelling councils and police authorities to post online alerts to local taxpayers and voters, informing them of their rights to inspect and copy contracts, expenses claims, invoices and documents authorising payments.

Regulation 10 requires principal councils and police bodies (from March 2011) to place a copy of the statutory newspaper notice on the authority's own
website, at least 14 days before the public may examine the documents and files.

Failure to provide online details of the dates for the public inspection (plus the location and types of files, the times for inspection, details of the external auditor and rights to raise questions and objections) renders the authority open to judicial review, and the risk of the authority having to re-run the public inspection process.

The 2003 regulations were also amended in 2009, compelling councils and police authorities to disclose (for the first time in 2010) payments to
highest earning staff.

Regulation 7 required councils and police authorities to attach a note to the accounts, giving details of (total) amounts paid to any council chief executive or chief constable receiving more than
£150,000 per annum, in several sub-categories.

These are: (1) salary, fees and allowances;
(2) bonuses; (3) expenses; (4) severance payments; (5) pensions, and; (6) any other financial benefits.

This rule covers those senior officers classed as 'head of paid service', 'statutory chief officer' or 'chief constable' or any other senior police officer above the rank of superintendent whose total financial remuneration exceeds £150,000 per annum.

The 2009 regulation required councils and police authorities to list (by job title but not by name) all
employees receiving more than £50,000 per annum.

Councils and police authorities were permitted (in 2010 only) to withold details of payments to chief constables and chief executives, providing the relevant employment contracts contained valid confidentiality clauses, in force before 1 April 2010.

The regulations therefore discourage any new
confidentiality deals being struck after 1 April 2010, for staff earning more than £150,000 (or an equivalent pro-rata income for part-time senior officers, worth more than £50,000 per annum).

The 2009 regulations (which have now been revoked) made it clear that councils and police authorities were not to treat
elected councillors as 'employees', and thereby deny taxpayers access to expenses claims or other financial payments to elected councillors.

Since this provision has been revoked, and does not reappear in the 2011 regulations, the position is now unclear as to whether councils and police authorities may treat elected politicians as 'employees' given that they receive special allowances and expenses.

However, the Local Government Act 2000 (as amended) requires councils to keep copies of
expenses claims and payments to councillors available in a public register, free of charge, all year round.

The regulations (as amended) set the period of public inspection of the accounts to 20 working days. Local authorities must give 14 (working) days' notice of the inspection period. These provisions continue under the 2011 regulations.

Regulation 23 of the 2011 instrument restricts councils from
altering any accounts and documents, without the knowledge or consent of the external auditor, once the public inspection period is underway.

The 2003 Statutory Instrument made it an
offence for anyone to breach these regulations. Unfortunately, the 2011 regulations have repealed that powerful sanction and deterrent, with the result that councils and police authorities are effectively immune from prosecution if they fail to comply with the law.

But it remains an offence under the 1998 Audit Commission Act for an official to obstruct a local taxpayer or voter attempting to engage his/her legal rights to examine and copy the accounts.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has a search engine to enable taxpayers and voters to locate details of all council expenditure above the £500 threshold, but this is available for England alone.

Click to the DCLG page here.

Details of
payments to council and police authority staff earning in excess of £50,000 per annum are available in the relevant authorities' annual statements of accounts.

All of the material, including detailed
contracts, invoices and bills, listed in the table above are available during the statutory public inspection period.

This takes place for
20 working days (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) between the end of the relevant local government financial year (beginning of April) and the completion of the annual audit process (usually end of September).

For guidance, contact Orchard News Bureau Ltd.