“Unusual” decisions at Salford Council under the spotlight

This morning saw Salford Council’s Audit Committee meet to discuss the findings of an internal report into the exact circumstances of a £164,000 taxpayer-funded “bailout” paid to the local rugby league club, Salford Red Devils, in 2013.

Journalists at the Manchester Evening News as well as other local writers have covered this story with aplomb. In particular, they have revealed that the council official – Martin Vickers – who signed off the bailout very soon left after the decision, taking up a position months later at the very same Salford Red Devils rugby club.

It appears from newspaper reports that not only was the bailout agreed without proper record-keeping, but that it was agreed by Mr. Vickers, the Mayor Ian Stewart and his deputy David Lancaster without the knowledge of Council Chief Executive Barbara Spicer, against Council procedure.

Even more remarkably, reports go on to say that Mr. Vickers soon after requested voluntary redundancy and, again without the Chief Executive’s knowledge, three days later a £79,000 “golden goodbye” was paid. This package, stunningly, included a Volkswagen Golf and an iPad.

At this morning’s Audit Committee meeting, it became clear that any spending decision over £100,000 had to have a proper paper trail and be made public. That was not the case, though the Council’s Monitoring Officer suggested this was due to “human error” rather than anything more sinister.

The Audit Committee voted to accept the recommendations of the internal report which places into procedure the various checks and balances which were already in place before this bailout was put together. Despite the Chair asking for the Committee to look into an independent inquiry into what occurred between Mr. Vickers, Mr. Stewart and the rugby club, it appears this matter will – at least officially – be laid to rest. This is despite the Monitoring Officer admitting this morning that the way in which the bailout was negotiated and the speed with which the redundancy package was paid was “unusual.” Apparently understatement is a key part of the job description for the role.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of bailing out a private rugby club – and, when the Council was attempting to find savings elsewhere in the budget, it is difficult to justify the move – the lack of transparency and accountability will stick in the throat of taxpayers. Nobody should be allowed to hide behind procedure, regardless of whether they have – as in Mr. Vickers’ case – left the Council’s employment. It is wrong that Councillors have no ability to question him.

To quote Jennifer Williams, the Political Reporter at the Manchester Evening News, “the point of democratic process and transparency is to allow criticism.” That entire page, reporting on this morning’s discussions, is worth reading, as is the report by Neal Keeling, also from the MEN, on leaked emails which appear to show those in charge knew that they were avoiding due process.

We hope that individuals and the local newspapers will continue to put pressure on Salford Council, so that taxpayers are able to understand how nearly a quarter of a million pounds without anybody apparently thinking to write it down.

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