In the days to come the council will open their accounts for inspection to you the residents of the district. As a local resident you have legal rights to inspect, ask questions about and challenge items in the Council’s accounts. Your rights only extend to the accounts for the financial year 2021/22 – which is April 1 2021 – March 31 2022. And remember the inspection window is for 30 working days only. So if the accounts open on 3 Oct 2022, at 9am, they will close at 5pm on the 11 Nov 2022. There are no exceptions to this.
STEP 1 KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Many people are concerned about how councils spend taxpayers’ money.
The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 gives people the right to look in detail at how councils spend our money in the financial year.
For 30 working days in the year anybody who lives within the district is entitled to look at how the council spends their money. Section 26 of the Act gives any elector the right to:
(a) inspect the accounting records for the financial year to which the audit relates and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and other documents relating to those records, and
(b) make copies of all or any part of those records or documents.”
Now this does not mean you can inspect anything and everything. There is case law on this matter what the council must let you inspect. The case law we refer to is Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd v Nottinghamshire County Council & Ors  EWCA Civ 1214; which summarized states:
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 - of the judgment).
Sometimes the information you request can be “confidential”, and in the same case it was held that:
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 ,  and  of the judgment).
Councils are obliged to advertise when the audit period is on their website. However, for obvious reasons the council tends to slip the advert out without any fanfare, so keep an eye out – here
WHO CAN AUDIT?
Any interested person can inspect the accounts. An interested person is a council tax or business rate payer or anyone who pays fees or charges to the council. If you are on the electoral roll you also have the right to raise queries with the external auditors.
It is normal practice to visit the council’s offices to inspect the documents that you have requested. You can send a representative to inspect on your behalf if you wish. That said the Council have allowed the audit process to be undertaken by email – firstname.lastname@example.org
LIMITATIONS ON THE AUDIT
You can only review costs which are incurred in the previous financial year. However, if there are related documents (such as contracts) which were created before this date then you have the right to see them.
The council can withhold items which it considers to be “commercial in confidence”. However, they should demonstrate why they consider that the information is commercially sensitive and be able to demonstrate why this overrides a public interest argument that the information should be made public.
You cannot ask to see documents which contain personal information, although you are able to see the salary of anyone in the council earning over £50K and in a senior management position.
STEP 2 – DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO LOOK AT
Many people get put off by seeing lots of numbers but you don’t need to be a financial expert to ask questions of how your council spends money. You don’t even need to look at the main accounts if you don’t want to.
To get started all you need to know is if the item you are interested in relates to money which was spent or received by the council in the previous financial year.
Decide what area you want to look at. This could be the sale of a piece of land or a particular supplier or project. If money was spent on it you’re entitled to look at it.
STEP 3 – DO YOUR RESEARCH
Research the company whose invoice you are interested in. You could find lots of useful information on the internet. Was the contract awarded without competitive tenders? Are there links between councillors/council officers and the company? Has the contract price increased dramatically?
STEP 4 – MAKE YOUR REQUEST
Request the documents you want. Click here for a standard template.
Do not ask to see absolutely everything as this could be deemed to be vexatious. Also bear in mind that council resources can be stretched at times, so making appointments should be by mutual agreement.
Make sure you get everything related to what you are looking at-contracts, variations, invoices and back-up.
Remember this can be done by email – email@example.com
STEP 5 – BE PREPARED
Once you have made your request the council may try to tell you that you can’t see some of the information requested as it is “commercially sensitive”. It is worthwhile having your arguments ready in response. Firstly the council needs to demonstrate why something is commercially sensitive – ie that it would harm somebody’s commercial interests if it was released. Secondly you need to have your public interest arguments ready-there may be reasons why the council should release information in the public interest. For example if the council have been stating that something is going to save the public money and you have good reason to believe this not to be the case then this could be a good reason for the council to disclose the information.
Remember the 30 day audit period is for you to inspect documents, not for the council to use delaying tactics. Try to negotiate but if you reach an impasse, Judicial Review may be necessary, although this can be expensive.
STEP 6 – ASK QUESTIONS
There should be a clear audit trail to demonstrate how decisions have been made and that they are in the public interest.
If there is something you don’t understand, is missing or makes you suspicious put your queries in writing to the council.
If you don’t get a satisfactory answer from the council, you are entitled to make a formal objection to the external auditor. However, you can only make a complaint to the external auditor if you find something that is illegal or if the council has spent or received money which it did not have the power to do. You cannot make an objection to the external auditor if you find that money has been wasted, although naturally you should still publicise it.
STEP 7 – PUBLISH WHAT YOU FIND
If you find something that the public should know, feel free to share it with us @firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shepway Vox Team
Being Voxatious is NOT a Crime