Leader of Hertsmere council calls probe into his expenses ‘inaccurate’
PUBLISHED: 17:25 02 August 2019 | UPDATED: 17:32 02 August 2019
The leader of Hertsmere Borough Council has called an audit report – that said there were not “effective controls” on expenses – inaccurate.
The report looks at expenses submitted by leader Morris Bright and the use of council-owned properties by the Conservative Party.
Cllr Bright - who is also county councillor for Potters Bar West and Shenley, and chairman of the council-owned Elstree Film Studios - was revealed in an April FOI to have paid back £3,422.14 worth of expenses to the film studios.
Cllr Bright said no one had said this was a "major fraud" or "police were investigating" at a Tuesday audit meeting.
He maintained, when at the executive meeting the next day, the £1,836.50 paid back was for a council open event to celebrated his MBE and if he had thought this was not the case he would have made it a private occasion.
"Would I have invited people I didn't like?" he said, referring to the group leader of the Hertsmere Labour Party, Cllr Jeremy Newmark.
The council leader also hit out against a £913.14 claim to a Cannes Film Festival trip he took with his wife in his capacity as chairman and the FOI statements that he asked for his room to be upgraded.
"Arrangements were never made by me, but by EFS staff," he said.
"I didn't question them. I always paid for my wife's flight tickets."
Along with issues on expenses, the report also looked at the free use of the studios by the Hertsmere Conservative Association and the Local Government Association (LGA) Conservative Group.
In the FOI emails - submitted in February by Hertsmere Labour Party and later obtained by the Borehamwood and Elstree Times - EFS director Roger Morris said the studios are only hired for events that are "commercially beneficial for EFS" and said the studios is "political agnostic".
Cllr Bright responded to this in the FOI emails by asking: "Are you taking the p*ss?"
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On Tuesday he defended this comment at an audit meeting and said this referred to his "suprise" at being asked the question.
He said the director Mr Morris had signed off on payments and use, and had raised no issues at the time.
Mr Morris told this newspaper the audit report "clearly places the onus on the councillors who claimed expenses and used the premises for their meetings", adding: "I as the managing director run a successful film studios business, they are elected councillors on our board. I am not responsible for their individual activities as board members and any expenses payments to those board members are made against legitimate receipts.
"I am however concerned when board members try to blame us for the accusations that are levied against them in an audit report that professionally clarifies the situation. This of course followed an FOI request."
Several Conservative councillors - at the meeting of the executive on Wednesday - also questioned the neutrality of the audit report and wanted clarification if other expenses of board directors (ie those who are not councillors) were looked at by the auditors.
Hertsmere corporate director Sajida Bijle, acting as chief executive, clarified it was not looked at and the terms of reference were made with the chief executive and head of finance Mathew Banyon.
Harvey Patterson, head of legal and democratic services, said there were assurances made by the auditors BDO that the report was independent.
"We need to have respect and confidence that our auditors are doing a good job for us," Mr Patterson said.
He also pointed out that, due to several legal challenges in decades gone by, it is better not to use council buildings for political purposes.
Mr Patterson said this could mean political parties like the English Defence League would also be entitled to use the buildings.
Cllr Harvey Cohen and Cllr Pervez Choudhury, while saying they think the recommendations to prevent this from happening again be implemented, said the staff and other board members of EFS should have their expenses looked at.
"This could be more widespread," Cllr Choudhury said.
Labour's leader, Cllr Newmark, said this was a "witch hunt" against council staff.
The executive agreed with the recommendations of the report and full council will meet on September 4 to discuss it further.