Publication of 288 page community transport inquiry by Cambridgeshire County Council may offer clue to sudden departure of law chief
- Credit: Archant
Law chief Quentin Baker’s abrupt departure from Cambridgeshire County Council comes only weeks ahead of publication of a 288 pages, 71,000 words and £100,000 investigation into Fenland Association for Community Transport (FACT).
The report will show the outcome of an external investigator’s examination of 52 separate complaints raised by the taxi and coach industry.
Their grievances and allegations include the awarding of home to school contracts, licensing, funding, issues with FACT accounts and claims that a survey of users was manipulated to allow continuation of council subsidies.
Mr Baker, as executive director of LGSS Law Ltd – which the council allowed him to set up five years ago as “social enterprise law firm” – has played a key role in assimilating and responding to many of the legal issues presented by the taxi industry over recent years.
The now former executive director – whose departure was revealed exclusively by this newspaper last month – has also been monitoring officer of the county council, a legal role associated with the conduct and behaviour of councillors.
Substantive issues raised by the taxi drivers’ association were contained in their own commissioned study which was conducted at their behest by Woodcote Investigations Ltd, a company run by a former economic crime officer for Cambridgeshire Police.
That report concluded there was bona fide evidence to support the taxi drivers’ claim and it later led to the county council agreeing to set up their own investigation.
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The first attempt was through a small audit investigation company, Green Biro, but following a successful challenge by the taxi industry the council agreed that a much more comprehensive probe was needed.
Mr Baker, whose official title was director of law and governance at Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Central Bedfordshire councils, had assessed the initial findings by Greenbiro.
Their initial conclusion accepted “some errors and weaknesses have been acknowledged” but said none of the findings and comments would allow a conclusion of criminal or fraudulent activities.
“There is an acceptance that some council procedures could be improved to help demonstrate better transparency” was also reported by Greenbiro.
However Mr Baker, in August 2016, agreed that counsel’s opinion was needed to clear up “apparent inconsistency between the regulations and government guidance” guiding local government funding for community transport.
He said counsel’s opinion “is far from unequivocal and highlights the confusion arising from the apparent contradictory wording in the Department of Transport’s regulatory assessment that accompanied the Certificate of Professional Competence regulations”.
Ambiguity, concluded Mr Baker, was apparent.
The new report, commissioned in August 2016, gave the go ahead for PKF Littlejohn to begin work. The initial budget of £40,000 is expected to have reached six figures by the time of its publication.
FACT has always insisted they are transparent, have nothing to hide, and board member Councillor Kit Owen said they co-operated fully with the Litlejohn investigation. He was confident they would be vindicated by the inquiry’s findings.
Taxi driver spokesmen and community transport bosses will – next week and on separate days – get the chance to see the main findings.
However they will be sworn to confidentiality of the outcome until a special all day meeting of the county council audit committee is convened next month to consider what, if any, actions will need to be taken.
The Greenbiro preliminary assessment did not offer a public conclusion – but the Littlejohn most certainly will – of the legal oversight of payments and contracts awarded to FACT and its subsidiaries HACT (Huntingdonshire) and ESACT (Ely and Soham).
High on that list will be the launch of the HACT in 2013, run out of the March office and by the same management team as FACT.
A series of Freedom of Information requests highlighted the method by which HACT started life and that was principally through an application to Cambridgeshire County Council for £201,862.95.
Most of that was by way of a grant - £174,294.98- whilst the remaining sum of £27,567.97 was noted as a loan, effectively to pay the VAT on the £174,000.
In the following year – according to HACT accounts – Huntingdonshire District Council chipped in with a grant of £15,850 for a ‘hybrid vehicle’ plus a further £50,000 denoted as ‘unrestricted’.
What has been in dispute is not only the high levels of commercial income achieved by HACT from the outset (through the awarding of home to school contracts) but the audit trail for the £201,862.95 launch payment.
What has never been properly explained nor documents revealed to show which officer(s) signed off the grant/loans and on what basis it was given and what, if any, caveats were put into the contract.
The questions that the Littlejohn inquiry will, hopefully, answer is what legal checks and balances surrounded not only this application but numerous others where funding has been sought.
The taxi industry once told Mr Baker that they believed FACT and HACT’s “principal activity is the fulfilment of cheap commercial contracts for Cambridgeshire County Council”. They added that they felt the “partnership between these community transport providers and the council is palpable”.
Mr Baker has defended the council against a barrage of complaints by the taxi industry.
Their spokesman said: “In 2014 FACT and HACT applied to the DfT for three minibuses worth over £150,000 of public funds. A signed declaration confirmed, that over a three year fiscal period, and in line with state regulations, each organisation had received less than the allowed £160,000
“However, a complaint made to the DfT had exposed how the organisation’s accounts appeared to confirm each organisation receiving in excess of 300,000. Due to such large discrepancies the cancellation of these buses was confirmed to MP Steve Barclay, where the under secretary of state (Andrew Jones MP) declared.
‘The department has withdrawn FACT’s and HACT’s acceptances to the fund, and consequently their minibuses will not be delivered’.”
There is no firm evidence of a link between the Littlejohn investigation and Mr Baker’s departure although, coincidentally, a draft of the report has been circulating at Shire Hall and would have been seen by chief executive Gillian Beasley who has been determined to bring to an end the four year battle with the taxi industry.
She has met, on a regular basis, with their representatives and at the early stage of the inquiry Mr Baker was one of the officers who accompanied her to meetings. He later withdrew following complaints by taxi industry officials who felt his presence compromised their ability to speak freely and independently.
They were also concerned at claims that he had ignored requests from councillors for information pertinent to inspection of licenses for community transport drivers, his failure to process an official complaint about statutory compliance and his alleged attitude towards councillors seeking information.
Mr Baker meanwhile has hinted that he expects to take on a new challenge following his move from the county council.
It will need to be of quite significant proportions to match LGSS Law Ltd, which now employs 150 staff – of which is was the senior director – with a turnover of £8.5 million.
It was also confirmed by Chris Malyon, deputy chief executive and chief finance officer at the county council, that Mr Baker will no longer be involved in This Land Ltd, the recently formed entity to develop the council’s commercial interests.
“As Quentin was appointed to the Board of This Land as a representative of the shareholder (the council) because of his role with the council, he will obviously not perform this role going forward.
“Therefore he will be removed as a director of the company and the Commercial and Investments Committee will consider who should represent the interests of the Shareholder in the near future.”
Mr Baker, in a post departure comment, told Local Government Lawyer: “From my perspective I am really proud of what we have all achieved. It is a good time now for me to take on the next challenge, whatever that may be.”
A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson said: “After nine years with Cambridgeshire County Council and then LGSS Group and LGSS Law, including three as executive director of LGSS Law during which the firm was established and set on firm footings for the future, Quentin Baker has decided that the time is right for him to take on a new challenge.
“We would like to thank Quentin for his commitment and contribution across all his roles, which have been valued by his clients, and wish him all the best in his next endeavour.”