Part 1: Are Kent County Council Finances in Safe Hands?

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Zena Cooke (pictured) is probably a woman you have never heard of. There is no need for you to have ever heard of her. She is Kent County Council’s (KCC) Director of Finance, the responsible finance officer, or in local government speak, the s151 officer, the person who has statutory responsibility for KCCs money.

She joined KCC in Nov 2018.

In 2019/20, Zena received £160,924 salary, including pension contributions.

Prior to Zena’s arrival at KCC, she was the s151 officer at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets from Sept 2015. Shortly after her arrival she became a member of the Clear Up Board which had received 66 allegations purported to indicate improper Council decision making or impropriety in the discharge of Council functions.

The Clear Up Board Zena sat on at Tower Hamlets, found ample evidence of impropriety, via the procurement process, says the East End Enquirer, then the Board with Zena on it, did sod all about it.

Now she’s in charge of all the money at KCC; which in 2019/20 had expenditure of £2.4bn and an income of £1.2bn, according to the accounts.

Each year, Kent County Council, like all other councils must open their accounts for inspection to the public. The person responsible for overseeing this in 2019/20, was KCC s151 officer, Zena Cooke.

While the 2019/20 accounts were open for inspection, questions and documents were asked for and inspected. However, some questions went unanswered.

The questions which went unanswered, were to do with double payments and overpayments to KCC suppliers; and how much money KCC had clawed back from making these overpayments, or double payments, to their suppliers.

In April 2017, we uncovered £7.5m of double payments in KCCs published payments to suppliers data.

KCCs response was as follows:

  • There is no mention of this within the statement of accounts so we believe this should be handled under the FOIA.

Remember the italicised word because it is super important.

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It is clear Zena is NOT very good at her job, even after 30 plus years in local government. 

We say she is bad at her job with a justifiable reason. There has been a legal precedent in the public domain for ten years, regarding what a member of the public can and cannot inspect, when any councils accounts are open for inspection by any elector.

Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd v Nottinghamshire County Council & Ors [2010] EWCA Civ 1214 sets out very clearly what one can and cannot inspect in the accounts. The judgement was handed down by the Court of Appeal – the 2nd highest court in the land:

  1. Both ‘accounts to be audited’ and ‘relating to’ should be given a broad meaning: the former referring to and/or embracing the underlying record of financial movements kept as a running record but made up for each financial year, and the latter requiring only a factual connection between the accounts and the documents in question, and not an express reference or mention (see [85]-[103] of the judgement). [Emphasis ours]

  2. Article 1 of the First Protocol to the Convention would, in the circumstances of the case, provide sufficient reason for needing to read down s 15(1) so as to make an exception for confidential information, subject to the question of justification (see [141], [162] and [166] of the judgment).

So Lord Justice Rix, Lord Justice Etherton and Lord Justice Jackson made it clear in their decision, in 2010, there does NOT need to be a MENTION of what ones wishes to inspect in the accounts. It must just relate to the accounts. And double payments and overpayments relate to the accounts as they are expenditure made by KCC in 2019/20. [emphasis ours]

In short, Zena as KCCs responsible officer for the inspection of the accounts should have released these figures.

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So we ask Zena (pictured), why wouldn’t she allow the public to see the double payments and overpayments made by KCC to their suppliers in 2019/20?

Has she found evidence of double payments and overpayments, then choosing NOT to recover them?

Does she at Kent; and did she while at Tower Hamlets, have a case of wilful blindness?

Wilful blindness is a legal concept which says that if there are things that you could know and should know and somehow manage not to know, the law holds you responsible.” M Heffernan.

Like the East End Enquirer states:

  •  “What was the point of a Clear Up Board [at Tower Hamlets] that didn’t do anything when they found something?

This looks awfully like one person’s transparency is another’s humiliation – hers?

In 2018, ITV reported, a former PwC Auditor, a data analyst and whistleblower, Andrew Rowson, identified millions of pounds ofdouble payments‘ to contractors wrongly paid out by Kent County Council and West Sussex County Council. He claims neither KCC, or WSCC recovered the money – or paid him – to avoid political embarrassment (quelle surprise).

Oakford

Now of course, a KCC Cllr is appointed as the cabinet portfolio holder for finance. That person is Cllr Paul Oakford (Tunbridge Wells North) (Con). He received £51,918.55 in allowances and expenses in 2019/20.  He too must shoulder some of the responsibility, for the what’s set out above.

Given the available evidence in the public domain – Are Zena Cooke, the KCC s151 officer and Cllr Paul Oakford, KCC Cabinet Member for Finance, the safe pair of hands to be watching over KCCs finances, in these strange times? We’ll leave you to mull that over.

The Shepway Vox Team

Dissent is NOT a Crime

About shepwayvox (1192 Articles)
Our sole motive is to inform the residents of Shepway - and beyond -as to that which is done in their name. email: shepwayvox@riseup.net

1 Comment on Part 1: Are Kent County Council Finances in Safe Hands?

  1. doggerbank56 // August 25, 2020 at 16:28 // Reply

    Good article – you should make further enquiries about her professional qualifications. Another issue that you have not (to the best of my knowledge covered) is whether KCC are awarding contracts to organisations which are controlled by criminal gangs.

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