Taxes aren’t going up, the chancellor insists. That would be difficult to stomach at any point, but particularly during a cost of living crisis, when the tax burden is one of the biggest strains on household budgets. It’s made even worse when there’s endless reports of the enormous waste that goes on in the public sector.
But for the September and October edition of the War on Waste blog, it’s not the waste itself that’s the problem. It’s the cover up. However, that’s not to say that the waste wasn’t significant. There was the £50,000 paid out to people held in police custody for property lost during their detention. Items lost include cash, firearms, bracelets and even a DVD. This was covered in the Daily Star. Or there were the hundreds of iPads lost by London Ambulance staff that we revealed in a story covered by GB News.
We uncovered this information using the Freedom of Information Act, which gives people the right to request information from public bodies about their spending practices. This isn’t the only way to see how public bodies spend your taxes, however. Arguably, it’s not even supposed to be the main way. Every year, public bodies publish a statement of accounts, a comprehensive report looking at what they’ve spent, how they’ve spent it and where the money they’ve spent has come from - although, with this final point, it almost always comes, in some form or another, from taxpayers.
But in October, the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed that dozens of councils had missed the deadline for publishing their accounts. They had a 31st July deadline for a draft, and 30 September for a final audited (verified by a third party) version. 97 didn’t publish either. 252 only published a draft. Just 31 published the full, final version.
That’s a transparency crisis. It means that a huge chunk of the more than £100 billion of taxpayers’ money, whether from council tax, business rates or government grants, spent by local authorities is unaccounted for. While councils are by law required to publish accounts, to get around this all they need to do is announce a delay, and the reason for it. Our analysis was covered in the Daily Mail and a number of other outlets.
One of the councils which failed to publish any accounts, not just for 2022/23, but for 2021/22 as well, and published only draft accounts in 2020/21, was South Cambridgeshire District Council - the infamous four-day week council. Perhaps they do need that extra day after all!
And town hall bosses in South Cambridgeshire are no stranger to a cover-up. There was of course the failure to disclose the chief executive’s PhD looking at the viability of four-day working weeks. But in September, we revealed what could be a much bigger scandal. The heavily touted Bennett Institute report, a so-called “independent” analysis of the council’s performance during the early stages of the trial, was nothing of the sort. It was edited by the council, significantly. When the first draft was revealed, it came as no surprise that the council wanted to make changes…
The first draft of the report included daming quotes, such as this one from a manager: "at the beginning of the trial I was a control freak, and I did all the unfinished work on my day off so that my team could have time off", adding that "this had a very negative impact on my wellbeing." But she said she turned a corner when she realised that "we don't always have to deliver perfect work and that's okay." There was much more in a similar vein. Write ups can be found in the Daily Mail, among other places.
Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent, and local government, as well as central government, should make it easy to find out. Fortunately, we will always be on hand to extract the information, even if it’s not as painless as it should be.
If you suspect public bodies of wasting money and want us to investigate, let me know at [email protected]