The rules governing
the public's rights to view and copy local authority files
are profiled in this section.
Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014
The Accounts and Audit Regulations 2015 (England)
The Local Audit (Public Access to Documents) Act 2017
The Accounts and Audit (Wales) Regulations 2014
The Local Authority Accounts
(Scotland) Regulations 2014
Local Government (Accounts and Audit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015
Download our handy PPT presentation here
The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014
The English and Welsh regulations enable councils to withhold information contained in their accounts which they regard as "commerically confidential" information between themselves and their contractors or suppliers.
No such restriction applies to residents, taxpayers and journalists wishing to examine financial spending details in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 enables electors and taxpayers residing in a particular local authority area to inspect and make their own copies of the detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books, vouchers and bills.
These are the records and docvments that relate to the
accounts of the financial year under audit.
The 2014 legislation is a revision of inspection rights enjoyed by the public since the 19th century. It has proved to be a useful tool for campaigners, taxpayers and journalists eager to dig out information about local authoity spending, and has been used to expose corruption, ulra vires (unauthorised) spending and nepotism.
The rights contained in the legislation pre-date and are separate to more recent rights to hold public bodies to account through the Freedom of Information Act.
The main difference between the FOIA regime and the public inspection rights during the audit period is that local electors, taxpayers and journalists have the right to visit the local authority in person and examine and copy original documents for themselves.
However, the 2014 Act significantly weakens the public's' abilities to investigate potential corruption because - unlike in the previous Audit Commission Act rights - it has given local authorities the right to withhold any information on the basis of protecting "commercial confidentiality" between itslelf and its contractors.
The wording of the legislation indicates that it is left to the discretion of the council and to the local auditor as to whether information containing commercially confidential data can be released in the public interest.
Journalists and local electors have no right to enforce disclosure, within the strict time limits of the public inspection period.
Prior to 2014, it was a criminal
offence for a council employee to obstruct anybody exercising their legal right
to see these records for themselves. This sanction against unreasonable obfuscation has been removed.
An official who obstructs a journalist or local elector does not commit a direct offence under the statute. Instead, a person is liable for prosecution if he/she obstructs a local auditor.
Until recently, the main restriction applied to details of payments to employees
and former employees, such as wages and pensions.
But Parliament has
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.
major safeguard in the statute is that councils 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 local auditor and the courts.
Section 26 of the Act also 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. However, this right does not extend to journalists living outside of the relevant local authority area.
In a further erosion of local electors'
abilities to hold local authorities to account, Parliament has also 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 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.
For further guidance, contact ONB.
The Veolia and Nottinghamshire County Council court
ONB and Lincolnshire County Council court hearing (2005)
HTV and Bristol City Council court case (2004)