Gillian takes 'personal oversight' of #farmgate probe
- Credit: Archant
Chief executive Gillian Beasley has taken “personal oversight” of a stalled two-year inquiry into how county council deputy leader Roger Hickford was given the tenancy of a nine acre publicly owned farm.
She acted swiftly after health issues forced the chief internal auditor of Cambridgeshire County Council to begin sick leave nearing the end of the inquiry.
Two days before Christmas, she appointed Mazars – an international audit firm - to take over.
The timetable of progress in bringing the inquiry to an end has been impressive, with an update released by the council ahead of the audit and accounts committee on January 26.
Neil Hunter, head of internal audit and risk management, says in his report: “This assignment is being handled by the company’s investigations team.
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“The firm has wider relevant expertise as the appointed external auditor for more than 50 local authorities elsewhere in England, as well as in real estate matters.”
Mrs Beasley says she was alerted to the ill health of the council’s joint chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson, who also oversees audit services for Northamptonshire and Milton Keynes councils.
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She says that there was no other auditor within the service with the experience and expertise necessary to complete this complex piece of work.
At December’s special meeting of the audit and accounts committee on December 23 “it was agreed that I would take personal oversight of appointing an appropriately qualified external auditor following a swift procurement exercise – with a view to them starting work immediately”.
Her reasons were set out in a public statement which said she was under pressure from council leader Steve Count and audit committee chairman Mike Shellens to wrap up the report quickly.
Mrs Beasley said there was also the need to release the findings of the report prior to May’s elections and the period ahead of it known as purdah which prohibits much council activity.
Mr Hunter says that between December 30 and January 5 Mazars were sent the paperwork.
Cllr Shellens also met with them “to express the importance of the audit and the need for its timely completion in line with the brief given to the auditors”.
Since then, the chief executive and officers have met with Mazars requesting and being offered “additional meetings with individual in order that they can complete sufficient assurance procedures for their own part and from a professional perspective “.
The committee will hear that further meetings are being held this week to finalise the timetable for the audit to be completed and for a decision to be taken by this committee on the date that will be set for this audit to be received and considered by the committee.
The audit committee ordered the inquiry after this newspaper revealed that he applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, whilst chair of the former assets committee that had overall responsibility for the farms’ estate.
The issue came into the public domain following the December 2018 meeting of the general purposes committee that ratified an earlier decision of the commercial and investment committee to plough money into Manor Farm.
That was when Cllr Hickford declared an interest and left the meeting whilst the committee considered an investment of £183,000 to finance an extension to Manor Farm.
There is no suggestion Cllr Hickford has done anything wrong or acted improperly, but Lib Dem leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha queried the “really shocking lack of transparency about it”.
Cllr Hickford said he had been honest and upfront about Manor Farm and said his interests had been listed for all to see.
Cllr Hickford wants Manor Farm as a day centre for dogs.
Last November it was revealed that a top legal firm is working with Cambridgeshire County Council to review and redact documents associated with the audit into the farm tenancy awarded to Cllr Hickford.
Weightmans had been working with the council’s chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson ahead of the delayed publication of the findings.
Mr Wilkinson told the audit committee that 300 plus comments and submissions were received and had been reviewed.
At that November meeting Cllr Shellens said: “Clearly…we have to have a public exposure of this at some stage.
“I note that the Priti Patel inquiry was four months… it took four months to report and a few months more to go public.
“And we’re the best part of two years”.
He said he was “particularly sorry” for those who are named in the Manor Farm report “and I haven’t seen it, but I imagine that they are, with this hanging over them”.
Cllr John Williams told the committee: “There has to be a public report in public session to enable the public to have their view on what they believe has happened, and what should happen next.”
The way in which Cllr Hickford secured a tenancy of a county council farm has been subject to an inquiry since January, 2019.
At Companies House, Mr Hickford is shown as moving his company, R H Financial Ltd, from High Street, Little Shelford to Manor Farm, Girton, on January 1, 2018.
He is currently the county councillor for Sawston & Shelford that includes the villages of Babraham, Great Shelford, Harston, Haslingfield, Hauxton, Little Shelford, Newton, Sawston and Stapleford.
He won the seat in 2017 with a majority of 56 – an improved performance on 2013 when he won the Linton division with a majority of just one.