MP accuses council of sweeping £30,000 contract concerns 'under the carpet'

Duncan Baker, speaking at the launch of the Wheelyboat, 'Poppy', in Blakeney

Duncan Baker, speaking at the launch of the Wheelyboat, 'Poppy', in Blakeney - Credit: Brittany Woodman

A feud between North Norfolk's MP and its local council has flared up again after Duncan Baker criticised what he described as "extraordinary goings-on" at the authority.

The latest row erupted after the Conservative MP raised further questions about the Liberal Democrat-controlled North Norfolk District Council's handling of a controversial £30,000 contract to hire a management consultant in 2019.

The consultant, Peter Thomas, was a friend of then serving councillor, Karen Ward, who stood against Mr Baker for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 general election.

Animosity between the two sides dates back to that election campaign, when Freedom of Information requests from Mr Baker revealed that Mr Thomas was introduced to the council by Ms Ward, who was then the member for housing.

A police investigation found no criminality at the authority.

As reported previously, an inquiry by an external audit company in March 2022 found that as part of the contract process a document appeared to have been backdated, in what investigators said was a "clear override of the council’s procurement controls".

Signatures on the form were dated May 20, 2019, but the review found the form was not downloaded and printed off until October 9, 2019.

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Last month Mr Baker and the council leader, Tim Adams, indicated a keenness to move on and resolve their differences.

But the MP has now reignited the dispute, by publishing documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which he says identify the two officers who appear to have backdated and signed the document.

They were senior officers - Duncan Ellis, head of finances, and Emma Duncan, the monitoring officer, with a responsibility to provide advice on all legal issues - who have both since left the council.

Between 2019 - when the document was downloaded and signed - and Mr Ellis' departure, he was promoted to director for resources, one of the most senior positions at the council.

He left the council last month, while Ms Duncan departed longer ago.

Mr Baker said the latest information, and the departure of both staff, raises further questions that the council needed to answer.

"A coincidence? Or more covering up by the Liberal Democrats? Without any scrutiny or questions holding them to account, would the Liberal Democrats simply have continued to sweep this incredibly serious matter under the carpet?"

He said the council should say whether taxpayers' money had been spent on "exit packages" for the two staff members.

He added: "These are extremely serious matters of judgement. Yet without my questions, it appears the public would never have been told about what has been going on."

A council spokesman said the authority has "robustly taken on board the recommendations made by independent auditors" and it could not comment on private staffing matters.

Ms Duncan and Mr Ellis were contacted for comment.


THE BACKSTORY

Following the 2019 local elections, the incoming Lib Dems - who took North Norfolk District Council from the Conservatives - wanted to review the authority's management structure.

To carry this out, it awarded a contract to management consultant Peter Thomas, who was a friend of then senior Lib Dem councillor Karen Ward.

Later that year, in the 2019 general election, Ms Ward stood for her party in the parliamentary election against Conservative incumbent, Duncan Baker.

During the campaign, Mr Baker criticised Ms Ward and the council over the awarding of the contract.

The authority decided there was no need to take any action about the way the contract had been awarded, but an allegation was made to the police who later cleared the council of any criminality.

However, the council asked accounting firm Ernst and Young (EY) to carry out its own review.

Its investigators highlighted a series of issues in the contract process and concluded there was a significant risk of “non-compliance of internal policies”.

One issue identified by EY was the lack of a formal tendering process, with no other quotes for the work obtained.

Under council rules, for all work worth over £5,000 at least three quotations should be sought before deciding who to give the work to.

NNDC used a ‘procurement exemption form’ - a document used by a council when it cannot follow normal contract procedures.

However, EY said NNDC’s decision to use the form was not in line with guidance given to councils and suggested it was backdated, “which is a clear override of the council’s procurement controls”.

EY made a series of recommendations to the council to ensure the situation does not arise again.