Fears of “cover-ups”, bad decisions and taxpayers’ money being squandered by Bristol City Council have been raised by a cross-party group of councillors.
Audit committee members, including its chairman from the ruling Labour group, are worried that potential mismanagement and blunders could go unchecked because they are being denied access to vital documents.
The authority’s top legal adviser has said councillors receive information which is “reasonably necessary for them to discharge their duties” and that improvements have been made, including scrapping the requirement for elected members to sign confidentiality agreements.
The audit committee’s main job is to ensure City Hall’s governance, risks, finance and control systems are working properly.
But Vice-Chairman Green Cllr Clive Stevens, told a meeting of Full Council that they were being prevented from doing the crucial checks, including having access blocked to some exempt papers containing confidential or commercially sensitive information, despite the fact scrutiny councillors are allowed to see them.
Need for proper access rights to information
Cllr Clive Stevens said: “Without proper access rights to information there might be opportunities for cover-ups of bad or risky decisions, project overspends or worse.
“Without access to all the facts we can’t define what we want checked.
“We have to half guess. We have to interrogate officers who may have differing motivations or even instructions from above.
“It’s a national issue made worse here due to Bristol’s governance arrangements.”
Committee member Lib Dem Cllr Tim Kent told the meeting on Tuesday, 12 January: “As a council you should be worried. You are getting members of the audit committee from all parties saying ‘we are concerned’.
“We are concerned we don’t have the right to access information on your behalf. The audit committee is about making sure we have spent our money well and learning from mistakes.
“We know there will always be mistakes and the whole point is to not repeat them.”
‘A tick-box exercise’
Committee member Conservative Cllr Liz Radford said: “For the audit committee to be effective, the information they ask for must be provided in a timely and accessible fashion and there must be member trust in the information being given to them.
“Without this, the audit committee is a tick-box exercise for this council and none of us can be confident in its risk management controls.”
Committee chairman Labour Cllr Mark Brain said: “I agree with everything Clive, Tim and Liz have said on information access. It has been obvious on the audit committee. Councillors of all parties are of one mind on this issue.”
The situation first came to a head last summer when frustrated committee members who requested financial information about Bristol Energy were told to visit City Hall to view a single copy or to watch an officer turn the pages on Zoom.
At the time, the council said members’ rights to inspect the confidential document was different to the right to access information which forms part of an agenda item for a meeting.
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The committee’s elected members unanimously passed a motion in July stating they were a “key part of the authority’s governance and must have potential access to all papers without restriction”.
“It is inappropriate to restrict access or make access more difficult than would be the case for other members of council,” the motion said.
But as the row rumbled on and councillors demanded answers, the director of Legal and Democratic Services, Tim O’Gara told their last meeting in November: “The rules relating to ‘need to know’ and access to information all stem from the principle that the information councillors need is information that is reasonably necessary for them to discharge their duties.
“When I joined Bristol City Council a couple of years ago, there were some very difficult procedures in place for members to access information. There was a need for members to sign confidentiality agreements.
“I’ve been quite clear to officers that this was not an acceptable practice and I’ve been keen for us to improve how we enable access to members in order for them to discharge their duties.
“I am keen for us to continually improve.
“We have had challenges in enabling members to inspect documents during the Covid pandemic, but hopefully we’ve learned from that and ensured any of the glitches that happened won’t happen again.”