It's Your Right to Know

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, on request.

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 protecting
corrupt 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.

It 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.

The 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.

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.