Merton Council To Tighten Rules After Whistleblower Report

Probe investigates use of 'interim' staff

Merton Council is set to tighten up its procedures on employing consultants after a 'whistleblowing' report published its findings.

The independent inquiry revealed that some 'interim' appointments - where consultants were working on a temporary basis - had been in place at the council for close to three years.

The Ernst and Young report stated that interim staff typically cost more than permanent staff due to the need to compensate them for lack of employment rights and pension contributions.

In the instances of the interim appointments investigated, there were four people being paid an annual rate between £35,554 and £71,720 more than the permanent equivalent. Their estimated annual rate was between £103,906 and £169,500.

But the investigation, which cost £33,000, concluded there was no evidence of corruption, malpractice or unlawful expenditure in relation to specific issues made by the whistleblowers.

It also pointed out that the rates paid to the individuals involved were comparable with the market rates for their services.

The auditors recommended there was no reason to investigate the whistleblowing claims further, at an additional cost to the council.

However, the report recommended a number of procedures were tightened up, including the council's HR department being responsible for maintaining a database of interim appointments and challenging departments on their use of long-term interim appointments.

It stated: "The appointment of interim or consultancy staff, on a long term basis, should regularly be challenged to ensure it is an appropriate use of council resources."

The whistleblowing statement had alleged that one of the interim appointments was a personal friend of one of the senior council officers. The report confirms that both knew each other and had met socially on a number of occasions.

The report also concluded that the council should review its policy on declarations of interest to include personal friendships.

Paul Evans, the council's solicitor and monitoring officer, said the council did not have to publish the report. "We want people to have a transparent view of what has give people the confidence that the council has done everything it should do. This council wants to be better than other councils," he said.

Councillor Mark Allison, Deputy Leader and Cabinet member for Finance, added: "We're very fortunate to have excellent staff and we would not have been named the country's best achieving council without them. We can now concentrate on getting on with the job of delivering excellent services to our residents and continue to be the best council in the country."

Conservative opposition leader Oonagh Moulton said: "It is clear that, whilst the review has not identified specific evidence of corruption or unlawful expenditure, there are some very serious questions for the leadership of the council to answer about its approach to transparency and value for money.

"Merton's council taxpayers rightly expect the council to be a responsible guardian of their money and to operate in a fully open and transparent manner. Residents will therefore be aghast that, for almost three years, the council has been paying well above the odds to fill vacant posts with interim staff. Equally worrying is the report's conclusion that there has been a 'lack of transparency and absence of appropriate oversight and scrutiny' in the engagement of long term contractors for these posts."

The report will be discussed at General Purposes committee on March 12.

March 2, 2014

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Ernst and Young report