Expenses probe slated as councillors call for full disclosure

Stroud News and Journal: Stroud District Council chairman Cllr John Hudson, who came under fire from colleagues after a probe he led into alleged expenses abuses at Ebley Mill failed to reveal full details Stroud District Council chairman Cllr John Hudson, who came under fire from colleagues after a probe he led into alleged expenses abuses at Ebley Mill failed to reveal full details

COUNCILLORS demanded full disclosure of a report into alleged mispayments of expenses at Stroud District Council after it was revealed key details would not be made public. A cross-party panel of councillors were selected to launch an inquiry into allowances and the council's own procedures for processing claims at the start of the year - the findings of which were unveiled at a full council meeting at Ebley Mill on Thursday night.

But a heated debate erupted after it was announced the notes of inquiry meetings would not be published for data protection reasons and due to the risk of defamatory discussions coming to light.

Inquiry chairman Cllr John Hudson, who launched the investigation in January, came under fire from colleagues for refusing to divulge the full contents of the report, which is thought to centre on claims made by an individual councillor as far back as 2008.

Key to the inquiry - conducted behind closed doors at Ebley Mill over five weeks in July and August - was an internal audit report into members' allowances for 2008/09, which found invalid claims totalling some £1,347.

A total of five recommendations were drawn up by the panel to ensure future discrepancies cannot happen, including implementing the raft of proposed changes identified in the original audit.

Cllr Steve Lydon (Lab, The Stanleys) led calls for the information to be released, telling members he would ask for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and 'keep asking.' "It is important that the proceedings, the evidence and the statements be placed in the public domain," he told the chamber.

"If we do not release it now, someone else will."

His views were echoed by Cllr David Drew (Lab, Farmhill & Paganhill) and Cllr Paul Denney (Lab, Cam West), who warned members not to bury their heads in the sand over the issue.

The outcome even drew criticism from inquiry panellists Cllr Mattie Ross (Lab, Stonehouse), who said the findings 'hadn't been open enough' and Cllr Roger Sanders (Lab, Uplands) who added that the recommendations resulting from the investigation were 'very mild.' The inquiry's recommendations were eventually adopted and Cllr Lydon was given an assurance that he would receive a full legal explanation as to why certain details were not released.

Conservative Cllr Dorcas Binns (Minchinhampton) slammed the inquiry report for suggesting a former member was expelled by the party for an alleged breach of conduct.

Cllr John Jeffreys, who represented Nailsworth and Horsley, was investigated by the council's standards committee and subsequently cleared of wrongdoing after he criticised delays in an audit report into expenses at a meeting in 2010.

Cllr Hudson's inquiry, which centred on the audit report in question, said Cllr Jeffreys was 'excluded' from the Nailsworth and Horsley Conservative branch over the issue but Cllr Binns called the accusation 'appalling' and said Cllr Hudson had done herself and the branch 'a great disservice.' Cllr Binns, who formerly worked as Cllr Jeffreys' campaign manager, told the chamber that efforts were made to contact Cllr Jeffreys at the time but to no avail.

Cllr Hudson resolved to personally write to Cllr Jeffreys to apologise over the issue.

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