£30,000 contract awarded to councillor's friend branded 'inappropriate'

Karen Ward, Liberal Democrat candidate for North Norfolk. Photo: North Norfolk Liberal Democrats

Karen Ward stood down from the council in 2021 after suffering from long Covid - Credit: Archant

A £30,000 contract awarded to the friend of a councillor has been branded “inappropriate” with an investigation discovering signatures were backdated to cover up mistakes. 

In 2019, North Norfolk District Council’s (NNDC) Liberal Democrat leadership awarded a £1,000-a-day contract to a contact of then senior councillor, Karen Ward. 

Now a review by accounting firm Ernst and Young (EY) has concluded the council’s arrangements were “not adequate” with a significant risk of “non-compliance of internal policies”. 

Following the May 2019 elections, the incoming Lib Dem administration wanted a ‘capability review’ - an examination of the existing council management structure – and awarded the contract to Peter Thomas Ltd, a consultant

In a report to NNDC’s governance, risk and audit committee (Grac), EY found the contract failed on four grounds: 

  • No formal tendering process was undertaken with no other quotes for the work obtained 

  • A proper ‘procurement exemption’ process was not followed 

  • No formal contract was signed between the review provider and the council 

  • And, two leading members of the incoming administration were central to selecting the provider, which an investigator branded “inappropriate” 

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 councils when it cannot follow normal contract procedures.

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However, EY said NNDC’s decision to use the form was not in line with guidance given to councils.

The document was also dated May 20, 2019, but an IT review found it was downloaded and printed off on October 9, 2019. 

EY said this suggested it was backdated, “which is a clear override of the council’s procurement controls”. 

However, the accountants noted the cost of the contract was not out of line with what it would expect for a review of this type and was satisfied the transaction was not unlawful. 

A police investigation into allegations of financial crime found no criminality in March 2021. 

EY also looked into the loss of £1,000 from the council’s digital mailroom in October 2019. An investigation was unable to establish whether the cash was lost or stolen and police said they had insufficient evidence to look into the matter. 

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

This included ensuring that all procurement exemption forms are subject to robust review, that the forms be reported to Grac and to establish an employment and appeals committee. 

A Grac meeting on Wednesday decided to discuss the issue behind closed doors.