The rules governing
the public's rights to view and copy local authority files
are profiled in this section.
The Audit Commission Act 1998
Section 15 of the Act enables
electors and taxpayers of a particular borough or police authority area to inspect
and make their own copies
of council and police authority accounts.
These rights of inspection
extend beyond the authority supplying data spreadsheets, listing income and expenditure,
The public has a right to see
the detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills that relate to the
accounts of the recent financial year.
It is a criminal
offence for a council employee to obstruct anybody exercising their legal right
to see these records for themselves.
The local councils and police authorities
are obliged to advertise
the times and locations that the accounts are open to public scrutiny. They must
give 14 (working) days' notice.
Authorities are also required to provide
facilities for people to copy
documents and records, but may apply a 'reasonable' charge.
Until recently, the main restriction applied to details of payments to employees
and former employees, such as wages and pensions.
But Parliament has
now widened the exemption to allow for the identities of any persons named in
the accounts to be deleted, with the agreement of the auditor, regardless of any
public interest test.
This amendment is clearly designed to safeguard
information relating to children in care proceedings, or vulnerable adults, and
overcomes similar Human Rights Act privacy concerns.
However, it risks
deals whereby (for example) a councillor or council employee arranges for a relative
or business associate to benefit from a contract or preferential access to services.
also appears to include broad scope for 'redacting' identities of any officials
who raise invoices, contracts and orders, or who approve invoices and other payments,
or identities of company directors, consultants and individual contractors hired
by local authorities.
It also appears to include details of expenses
claims made by members of police authorities, which are not covered by general
disclosure rules requiring records of payments to councillors to be kept in a
separate public register.
major safeguard in the statute is that councils and police authorities wishing
to erase details of the accounts will need the approval of the auditor. Aggrieved
taxpayers retain a general right to challenge
what appears to be any unreasonable decision to redact files, through the courts.
The Act provides electors and taxpayers with a right to question the auditor about
the accounts at the end of the inspection period, and to lodge formal objections
to any item of expenditure.
But in a further erosion of local electors'
abilities to hold local authorities to account, Parliament has now removed taxpayers'
previous statutory rights to ask the auditor questions about the local authority's
finances, through a representative.
It is not clear whether this new restriction
prevents taxpayers from being accompanied
by an agent, such as a qualified accountant, at any meeting with the auditor.
But it would not exclude a solicitor or accountant from acting on formal record
at any such meeting.
Electors and taxpayers must live in the locality
of the local authority concerned. A court ruling in 1934, cited as legal authority
in a 2004 case, held that an agent may carry out an inspection on behalf of a
voter or taxpayer.
This right is not explicitly repealed in the statute,
so should be enforceable under common law.
Department for Communities and Local Government has a search
engine to enable taxpayers and
voters to locate details of all council
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,
listed in the table above are available during the statutory public
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