Transparency of debts write-off at county council challenged

UKIP's Sandra James
UKIP's Sandra James

The level of transparency over writing off almost £150,000 of debts by West Sussex County Council has been challenged by opposition members.

When executive decisions are made by the Cabinet, cabinet members, senior officers, or committees they are usually accompanied by an officers’ report to explain the background. Part 1 is public, while part 2 is only sent to councillors as it usually includes confidential or sensitive information.

They are also subject to either a seven or five working day call-in period, where councillors can request the decision is scrutinised by a select committee before they are approved.

But a recent decision relating to the writing off of four debts totalling £145,078.32 contained no detail or background.

Sandra James, deputy leader of the UKIP Group at WSCC, said: “I would like to put to Michael Brown [cabinet member for finance] why there is a level of non-transparency at WSCC on this financial matter regarding its detail. This detail is restricted under Part 2 regulations.

“These are substantial monies that have been written off and yet the electorate are denied a detailed explanation.

“It also begs the question what else has been historically written off or is in danger of happening with no open transparency.”

A separate decision from late July related to almost £1.2m of bad debts in adults’ services and was accompanied by a five-page report explaining why they were being written off.

It explains how at the end of March 2015 there was £4.7m of aged debt outstanding, of which £0.8m relates to 2011 or before.

Following a review the council has concluded that ‘there is no likelihood’ of recovering £1.187m due to the age of the debt, the value, or lack of activity.

This number could rise by £641,000, where they are looking to try and recover debts, but may also need to be written off as it relates to customers who are either dead or where the council was still trying to re-establish contact.

The report said that a new financial and case management system and the outsourcing of transaction services to Capita had led to a ‘loss in the continuity of staffing and availability of some historic records’.

A spokesperson for West Sussex County Council said: “WSCC issued around £151m in invoices in 2014-15, and the write offs made in that same year only totalled around £250k. The Adults Service debt write off was only after considerable investigation which concluded that was the only option.

“The second report included some personal details which we aren’t at liberty to disclose.”

This follows the publication of a critical internal report in June, which drew attention to ‘systematic failures’ in the county council’s management of one of its contracts, and a ‘complete breakdown’ in risk-management processes. The report also said that it was not clear how the authority was obtaining value for money through its outsourced contracts.

In response leader Louise Goldsmith said that while the report might be ‘uncomfortable’, they were looking at everything they did as a council to ensure that they delivered the best outcomes and value for money.

Mrs James said the three-month timeframe for a review of the findings that she herself instigated was ‘essential’ and said it was important that the decisions and performance of senior managers at WSCC were scrutinised as well as that of the Tory Cabinet.

She added: “Too often the electorate has been denied explanations across tiers of government decision making, in this local matter with the write off of debt covered by part 2, and elsewhere.”

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