Councils say they 'take seriously' allegations about community transport funding as investigations get under way

PUBLISHED: 13:31 04 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:31 04 May 2016

Lined up outside Tesco, March, a trio of FACT buses dropping off passengers

Lined up outside Tesco, March, a trio of FACT buses dropping off passengers

Archant

County and district council officials say they are looking at how best to progress an inquiry into allegations about community transport funding.

Fact building Martins Rd. March.Fact building Martins Rd. March.

Cambridgeshire County Council revealed today they have “made the police aware” of a file handed into Shire Hall last month by the Cambridgeshire Bus, Coach and Taxi Association setting out the allegations.

A county council spokesman said: “The council received a pack of information from the Cambridgeshire Bus, Coach and Taxi Association (CBCT) making various allegations.

“This is something we take very seriously and are currently talking to partners to consider how best to investigate the claims.

“We have also made the police aware of the documents given the serious nature of some of the allegations.”

Fact building Martins Rd. March.Fact building Martins Rd. March.

The spokesman added: “In addition we are looking at the claims about what training and licences drivers should have.

“This is a complex issue and while we are following the lead of other councils in how we deal with this, we are asking the Department for Transport for clarification.

“We will then take the appropriate action if anything changes as a result of this clarification.”

One of the organisations referred to in the documents is the Fenland Association for Community Transport (FACT).

Taxi and coach operators protest, Shire Hall, Cambridge. Far Right: Dave Humphrey and Cllr Ian Bates Chairman of the Economy, Transport and Enviroment,  Picture: Steve Williams.Taxi and coach operators protest, Shire Hall, Cambridge. Far Right: Dave Humphrey and Cllr Ian Bates Chairman of the Economy, Transport and Enviroment, Picture: Steve Williams.

In a statement the March based organisation says: “The allegations made about local CTOs (community transport officers) their officers, members and drivers in the report are refuted and unequivocally denied.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further while Cambridgeshire County Council undertakes a review of the allegations.

FACT’s statement, issued to RouteOne (the weekly magazine for the coach and bus industry) added that it would assist with any inquiry.

Fenland District Council is also conducting an inquiry and councillors have been urged not to speak publicly about the allegations.

Corporate director Gary Garford told the CBCT: “The council takes seriously any concerns raised about the conduct of the council and its staff, particularly the specific allegations of the council’s wilful negligence contained within the investigations report.

“As a result the council is initiating a thorough internal investigation of these allegations and will report back the resulting conclusions to you in due course.

“In respect of the other matters we are unable to comment on the private accounts of FACT or the actions of Cambridgeshire County Council in respect of your allegations against it.”

Mr Garford has also asked councillors not to discuss the issue publicly until the inquiry is complete.

In a separate email to councillors Mr Garford said: “Following consultation with our legal team we are currently considering the council’s position prior to any response and whilst this consideration is taking place we would ask that your do not respond to or engage with CBCT.”

He said the council’s overview and scrutiny committee was due to discuss FACT on July 11 but “under the circumstances” he would be asking for the debate to be deferred “until the current matter is resolved. I trust this adequately updates you on this matter.”

However independent Wisbech councillor Virginia Bucknor is pressing ahead with questions she feels Fenland Council should answer.

She told Mr Garford: “I am extremely disappointed you have declined to respond to me with any further information yet we are advised to make no public comments despite the fact the information is in the public domain.”

She detailed her questions to Mr Garford:

1) An audit was carried out previously by an FDC officer. Was it an internal auditor and if so, will it be the same person?

2) What expertise does that officer or officers have in undertaking such an audit (given that FACT’s accounts allegedly are many months late)?

3) What methodology will be used to carry out the audit?

4) Please provide any further information that will assist me in understanding the processes that will be undertaken so that I can be satisfied the serious allegations made are to be examined in sufficient depth.

I will want to be satisfied that (a) substantive auditing procedures will be undertaken, (b) substantive analytical procedures including but not exclusive to examining FACT’s internal controls and division of their private and charitable work.

She said: “Please appreciate I represent Wisbech residents and on their behalf I need to ensure a robust examination is going to take place.

“I am disappointed that to date you have chosen to give me a restrained reply.”

Cllr Bucknor added: “I am not prepared to ‘rubber stamp’ serious allegations without being advised what the process will be.

“In the past when allegations were made, officers found all to be satisfactory yet this does not appear to be the case under the current allegations.

“I simply want to know what the process will be this time and this is my third time of asking.”

Mr Garford responded that “as you will see from the documents submitted by Cambridgeshire, Bus, Coach and Taxi Association serious allegations are made against both councils and individual staff.

“The core of the allegations is aimed at Cambridgeshire County Council who is considering its position.

“In respect of the allegations against Fenland District Council and its staff, we have instigated an internal investigation.”

Around 20 drivers from across the area lobbied county councillors at Shire Hall, Cambridge where they presented a 38 page report by a private investigation firm.

Cambridgeshire Bus, Coach and Taxi Association has funded a £1,000 report by Woodgate Investigations into concerns that FACT (Fenland Association for Community Transport) and community transport groups including Ely and Soham Community Transport (ESACT) and Huntingdonshire Association for Community Transport (HACT) have been given an unfair commercial advantage over members of the association.

Association leader Dave Humphrey, who has led a three-and-a-half-year campaign to highlight what he terms “the unfairness of the way county council transport contracts are awarded to community transport groups” presented the document to Councillor Ian Bates, chairman of the economic and environment committee and Graham Hughes, executive director of economy, transport and environment.

Mr Hughes said the documents will now be looked at and discussed internally and they will report back on their findings.

Taxi drivers and firms from Fenland and the Ely area helped fund the report following the launch of the association in September last year.

Every councillor has been given a copy of the report.

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