Prepare to be ‘as horrified as I was’ says former audit chair

Decision time looms for Cambridgeshire County Council

Where are they now: From left- disgraced former deputy leader Roger Hickford. Former chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson who oversaw the original inquiry. He's moved to Northampton. Former committee chairman Mike Shellens (right) who quit when his committee refused to publish the report. - Credit: Archant

As you reported last week, Cllr Chris Boden has “come out” to say that the full report on the Farmgate affair should at last be published. Good.  

What a shame that his four Conservative colleagues on the audit and accounts committee, (they had a majority on the decision-making committee at that time) were not of that view back in March. 

As residents may be aware I was chair at the decisive meeting until the vote to make public or to keep private. This is what Cllr Boden and his fellow members on the new committee must now judge. 

The sequence of events is instructive. 

 We had each been given a copy of a report from a firm of external consultants. It related to an investigation regarding the letting of the Council owned Manor Farm in Histon. The claim was that this letting had not been appropriately dealt with. The report was some 480 pages long. 

The day started with a very fierce private briefing of the committee by external lawyers.  

Their objective was to protect the county council from any legal action resulting from information released into a public meeting. They pointed out that worst case could result in actions against individual members. 

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When the public meeting started, we first reviewed in detail the actions by the council’s staff and its procedures. 

There were 37 recommendations in this part of the report and the committee considered all of them closely, arriving at a decision as to future action on each. This took until after lunch. 

That done, we then turned to the second part of the report.  

As has been widely reported by John Elworthy in his comments on events, this dealt with accusations about actions by Roger Hickford, the then deputy leader of the Conservative group and therefore the council, who had taken out an official lease on Manor Farm. 

The question was raised as to whether the committee meeting should then move into private session so that the public should be deprived of the detail revealed. 

Throughout my 7+ year tenure as committee chair, I had consistently allowed all our conversations to be in public.  

Whilst mindful of the advice from the lawyers I have always taken the view that advice from a lawyer does not mean that I should turn off my brain.  

Indeed, I follow the maxim attributed to Harold Wilson who apparently said of his Deputy Prime Minister, George Brown, “When I want your opinion, I shall tell you what it is.” Remember, I knew the detailed contents of the report.  

I felt that the comments about the weaknesses and alleged failures of council procedures and staff actions had now been exposed to the wider public through the streaming of this public meetings.  

I felt that what was sauce for the goose should likewise be served up to Mr Hickford. It seemed inequitable to castigate staff but protect a councillor.  

My second reason was public interest. There had been much public comment, with whispered allegations of sleaze and financial impropriety.  

To preserve the good name of the council we should let everything be known, warts and all. I subsequently found out that over 600 people had tuned in to the broadcast of the meeting.   

My third reason was that I had maintained throughout my tenure that the conclusions of any investigation should be made fully visible to the public who, after all, pay.  

This included community transport, an earlier investigation, likewise two years, likewise with police involvement.  

Finally, I judged that the additional probability of legal action was very slim. The information about staff was already in the public domain.  

Thus, the only extra risk was from Mr Hickford . I did not believe that it was in his interest to prolong the inquest into his actions. Remember I had read what he was alleged to have done.   

So, with great reluctance I stood down as chair. 

 The question now is will the new audit committee, now without an inbuilt Tory majority, reverse its previous decision and allow all of the report to be seen by the ratepayers of Cambridgeshire.  

If they do then I anticipate that they will be as horrified as I was by some of the material it contains.  

To sum up all the pages I simply repeat a summary made by a Conservative committee member during our secret conversation; “Not an officer and a gentleman! And should be discharged without honour!”.  

I trust that residents will be in a position to judge for themselves soon.