Effective 'scrutiny' is vital if our public servants and representatives are to held to account. Yesterday, I issued a press release commenting on a 'draft' report published on the website of Powys County Council. It was entitled Scrutiny Review - Treasury Management. Have to say it seems odd to publish such a sensitive report in 'draft' - but the last thing I'm going to do is accuse the Council of being too open!! The subject of this review was the Council's investments in Icelandic Banks. I've taken a close interest in this issue since it blew up last September/October, and have been awaiting the report from Powys with keen anticipation.
Now its not just Powys Council which had big investments with Icelandic Banks. Hundreds of public bodies did. I hope other Councils will carry out the same sort of scrutiny into what happened. What we know about my local Council is that it had £4 million invested - and it may be that most or all of this money could be lost, plus the £200,000 per annum interest. I happened to be in the Council chamber last year when a 'Statement' was made to Councillors outlining potential losses. I remember my eyebrows shooting up when I heard that £1 million was invested with Landsbanki as late as September 5th, just one month before things went completely belly up - and after several other local authorities had decided Icelandic Banks were too risky. There is a local irony in that the Dyfed Powys Police Authority had so decided several months previously.
Anyway, here are a few quotes from the Draft Report - "identified weaknesses in the Council's operational system which require action" and "the Council has become complacent after several years of 'risk free' investment" and "The Council's management team has been given little supervision or direction by the Board or senior management" and "the CIPFA Code of Practice encouraged too much trust to be placed in credit ratings - credit ratings (which) turned out to be virtually worthless". This is strong stuff - and the fact that its taken such a long time (and is still in draft) suggests there's been quite a bit of debate going on behind the scenes.
I think we should wait until the final report is published before making any final judgement on this. But I do think there is a genuine stab at real scrutiny happening in Powys. This is very good news for democracy in Powys, and I'm all for it. Real scrutiny isn't comfortable for Council officers or Councillors themselves - but its very good indeed for public confidence in our Councils over the longer term. All I will add is that when the Final Report is agreed, the Council should present it at a Press Conference, as up front as possible, and take any criticism there might be on the chin. Effective opposition is virtually non-existent when a Council is run by an Executive Board on which all groups are represented as of right (as it is in Powys) - but the sort of scrutiny we've seen here goes some way to providing it.