Six hour grilling as county councillors put FACT under the microscope following £170,000 probe

FACT, HACT and ESACT report from Shire Hall on Tuesday, July 31. Picture: HARRY RUTTER / Archant 201

FACT, HACT and ESACT report from Shire Hall on Tuesday, July 31. Picture: HARRY RUTTER / Archant 2018 - Credit: Archant

For six hours they sat as council officers, councillors, taxi and coach drivers and forensic accountants drove home in devastating detail the actions that had brought them to the seat of local government for Cambridgeshire.

It was not a trial but the grandiose characteristics of Shire Hall and the placements around the room emit that atmosphere.

Huddled in one section were the board members of the Fenland Association of Community Transport, led by Fenland councillor Kit Owen, former county council l leader Jill Tuck and training manager Steve Shannon.

Next to them sat Jo Philpott, the manager of FACT and the Ely and Hunts equivalents, ESACT and HACT.

It was principally her management on ‘trial’ as the accumulation of what Councillor Chris Boden was later to describe as a series of “unfortunate accidents” had left the organisation exposed to successful challenges of public funding being used to support commercial activities.

A £170,000 and 288 page report commissioned by the county council had spelt out in detail the extent of the issues at stake.

From misrepresenting membership of FACT to parish councils (she claimed 5,000 but in reality had only 1,200) to describing the organisation as a charity, to over stating level of need and the question mark – left hanging – of how a council official found his name appended four times to a grant application by FACT. He denied all knowledge of it.

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And there was the matter of accounting, including trying to find out why all the cash from the three organisations was put into one pot. It was the latter action that made the analysis of where charity and public money was being used for community transport and how a fleet of mini buses was being assembled for commercial contracts problematic.

The county council chief executive Gillian Beasley had no doubt wrong doing was evident and nodded when investigators spoke of the “serious” nature of the complaints they had reported upon in their findings.

“For the record I apologise to the taxi drivers fore the way the county council failed to handle complaints over many years,” she said.

Ms Beasley went further, promising to meet aggrieved taxi drivers – whose complaints from many years over unfair competition – led to the campaign.

She spoke of personally overseeing an action plan, spoke of reports to be made to the Traffic Commissioners and the Department of Transport of the inquiry findings, and warned FACT they were no notice to reform or risk losing all work with the county council and the likelihood of a new way forward being found to maintain essential community transport for those who most need it.

“I have made it clear to FACT for the county council to continue and support then our trust and confidence in them must be restored,” she said.

There is also the likelihood of HMRC involvement as the inquiry pin pointed possible breaches of rules that govern how much charities can earn prior to paying tax.

Cllr Owen played down the report, claiming the issues uncovered were historic and been dealt with,

“It is philanthropy that drives our staff not money,” he said.

The committee heard that a £60,000 loan and a Citroen had been returned by FACT to the council (council officials had forgotten to chase it up).

And a further £300,000 may be required to be paid back once more investigatory work has been done on public sector funding and whether grants have been given in breach of regulations.

Audit committee member Cllr John Williams said: “I have been waiting to hear – for the whole of today – from FACT for an apology.

“But all I have got so far is like a bank – we’re too big to fail and you have to put up with us because you’ve got no-one else”