Thurrock residents have forced a “humiliating U-turn” on a decision not to call for a public inquiry into the council’s £1.5billion “debt albatross” – thanks to a 1,500-signature petition.
The will of the people
The council has steadfastly resisted a public inquiry into how it has accrued the colossal debt thanks to a string of investments made with money borrowed from other councils. Resident Kabul Sandu presented the petition at full council on Wednesday. Andrew Jefferies, leader of the council, agreed to write to the Secretary of State to request a public inquiry takes place.
Mr Sandu said: “The bankruptcy of Thurrock is different from that of other councils in the scale of its £1.5 billion squander and the manner in which it was incurred. This is the council whose director of finance met a businessman in a salubrious hotel. Why there? Any minutes taken? What was agreed? We need transparency and accountability. Who signed off the contract? Him alone? The chief executive? Who else?”
Mr Sandu asked what consequences the former chief executive Lyn Carpenter and finance director Sean Clark had faced after the council borrowed “seven times more than the council’s income”. He asked: “Were they allowed to run off with golden handshakes? Residents need to know. We residents have a £1.5 billion debt albatross around our neck”.
Conservative politicians had resisted an inquiry
After the council effectively declared bankruptcy, the government appointed commissioners to carry out a Best Value Inspection. Mr Clark’s professional body, the Financial Reporting Council, also held an inquiry into him. The council had argued that this was sufficient investigation of the financial meltdown. Thurrock’s Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price agreed. She said that she believed a public inquiry would be a waste of money.
Mr Jeffries said he also agreed with that position. However, he said: “The public tonight have spoken and I believe it is right for the petition to be enacted due to the strength of the public’s opinion that the council should write to the Secretary of State to request a review … The council does not have the power to call for or set up a public inquiry, however, what I would like to suggest is that myself and the leader of the opposition will send a letter to the Secretary of State asking him to consider holding a public inquiry”.
A criminal inquiry?
Mr Jefferies said Essex Police had yet to decide whether to launch a criminal inquiry.
John Kent, leader of the Labour Group, called the change of stance a “humiliating U-turn … I’m slightly stunned by what we’ve heard from the leader of the council. A long argument about why we shouldn’t have a public inquiry, about how it’s a waste time and a waste of money but ends up with we’ll ask for one anyway.”
Neil Speight, Independent councillor for Stanford-le-Hope West, called the leadership a “pack of weasels”, before adding: “They should not take pride in the fact that as we approach an election, under pressure, they have done the right thing”.