Sunday, July 05, 2009

District Auditor to investigate breach of council's own constitution

This investigation began with a spelling mistake. On 24th October 2007 I posted a story here about a hospital car park and used the logo of the company, who I believed was the hospital's enforcement contractor. Within minutes I had received an e-mail from NCP Services Head of Communications, Tim Cowen which stated:

You seem to be confused between NCP Services and NCP. They are two separate companies (used to be one and the same but were separated in March and are now separately owned).The hospital car parks in question are, I believe, run by NCP, so I would be obliged if you could remove the NCP Services logo. I work for NCP Services, which does not run any local services in Humberside. You spelt "indefensible" wrong as well

Tim Cowen
Director of Communications
NCP Services

With the NCP Services logo removed and replaced with that of National Car Parks Ltd. (and my spelling mistake corrected) an investigation began.
This resulted, around a year ago, in objections to the 2007-8 accounts in a number of council areas due to the fact that the original enforcement contracts (between the council and National Car Parks Ltd.) had been transferred to a newly formed company NCP Services Ltd. in what appeared, from the evidence obtained, to be a breach of the Councils' own constitutions.
The District Auditor is currently seeking counsel's opinion on the breach and Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Minister Norman Baker has raised the matter with his own council in Lewes East Sussex.
For the avoidance of doubt, Andrew Potter, Chief Executive of National Car Parks Ltd. cleared up the point as to whether National Car Parks Ltd. and NCP Services Ltd. were the same company with the letter (below) to the Sunderland Echo.

Sunderland did originally enter into a contract with National Car Parks Ltd. in January 2003 but after the BBC Inside Out programme was aired on 2nd October 2006 an internal investigation began which saw the sacking or resignation of 11 National Car Parks Parking Attendants and the eventual removal of the regime from the contract when the council took enforcement 'in-house' on 1st December 2007.

However, whilst all this furore was going on and the internal investigations were being conducted National Car Parks Ltd. 'de-merged' on 13th March 2007.

In Sunderland, the contract was simply transferred across by council officers without, as yet any evidence of anything in writing (in the form of minutes, legal advice, treasurer's advice) and without reference to the executive. This is in clear breach of the council's own constitution which clearly sets out Financial Procedures in such circumstances. and is now the subject of the investigation.
In other local authority areas legal advice led to 'novation agreements' hastily being put in place some time in 2008 but no such agreements were able to be put in place in Sunderland due to the fact that neither National Car Parks Ltd. or NCP Services Ltd. had any responsibility for on-street enforcement.

Once objections were lodged the District Auditor has a duty to investigate and they are now seeking counsel's opinion for the second time, this time specifically to decide on whether there has been a breach to the council's own constitution by 'an officer' who has acted without authority.
Documents released from the London Borough of Camden are quite revealing:

Wonder why this Parking Attendant tried to hide his uniform here

The story breaks in today's Sunday Sun
Sunderland Council in parking fines payback
Phil Doherty
Sunday Sun
5th July 2009

A NORTH council could be forced to pay back tens of thousands of pounds in parking fines because it failed to follow its own rules, according to campaigners.
They claim that Sunderland City Council failed to follow its own constitution and local government rules when NCP Parking Ltd was replaced by NCP Service Ltd in 2007/8.
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