Leaked report on leader's expenses investigated by Hertsmere council

PUBLISHED: 18:00 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:15 23 July 2019

Morris Bright at Elstree Studios' 90th birthday . Picture: John Morosini-Whelan

Morris Bright at Elstree Studios' 90th birthday . Picture: John Morosini-Whelan

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An audit report - looking into expenses by the leader of Hertsmere borough - is being investigated by the council following a leak.

Expense claims repayed by Cllr Morris Bright. Picture: Flourish and made with data from the leaked audit report.Expense claims repayed by Cllr Morris Bright. Picture: Flourish and made with data from the leaked audit report.

The report - leaked on July 3 - looks at expenses submitted by borough leader Cllr 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 council-owned Elstree Film Studios, was revealed in April to have paid back £3,422.14 worth of expenses to the film studios.

The figures were obtained by a Freedom of Information request (FOI), submitted in February by Hertsmere Labour Party and later obtained by the Borehamwood and Elstree Times.

Most of the now repaid expenses, a total of £1,836.50, were claimed for a party Cllr Bright threw when he was awarded an MBE.

Cllr Bright said - in email invitations to councillors, newspapers and Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden - the party was being thrown by Elstree Film Studios.

But chief executive of Hertsmere Borough Council Donald Graham said, in emails made to the studio's managing director Roger Morris, that he told Cllr Bright the expenses needed to be repaid.

When asked about this by the auditors, Cllr Bright said the reception for his MBE award was attended by councillors and staff alike so "it was not unreasonable for the costs of the reception to be met by the council".

However, he reimbursed the studios after a conversation with a council financial officer.

Another claim for a hired car to take him to Buckingham Palace for his MBE award was also charged to the studios — after the council refused to pay for it — and was paid back.

As well as a £913.14 Cannes Film Festival trip he took with his wife in his capacity as chairman.

Due to the lack of clarity on some other expenses, the auditors warned the council it was "open to accusations that it is not sufficiently transparent about expenditure".

"Although we noted that £820 of this was for reimbursement of expenditure incurred relating to the EFS archive, membership of BAFTA and mileage," the auditors said. 
Party transactions were also not formally disclosed in the accounts of the studios.

"For example, Cllr Bright claimed reimbursement from EFS for a signed and framed Anna Karen/On the Buses Montage (£100) to donate to Children in Need in 2015), purchase of DVDs (£148) for Elstree's 90th anniversary in 2016, and BAFTA membership," it highlighted.

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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, EFS director Mr Morris said the studios are only hired for events that are "commercially beneficial for EFS" and said the studios "are political agnostic".

Cllr Bright responded to this by asking: "Are you taking the p*ss?"

He added that if there was an issue he would have the meeting moved.

The two Conservative associations paid back over £10,000 in total.

In the wake of these controversies, the report concluded there were limited assurances that "effective controls" are in operation, but noted things are starting to improve due to the work of the council and studio.

It recommended as a "high priority" that allowances and expenses are published and codes of conduct are updated to state "improper political purposes" extends to council-owned property.

The studio's managing director Roger Morris told the Welwyn Hatfield Times he will "put in place the recommendations of auditor".

He added he hoped the whole situation has not damaged the reputation of the studio.

"Transparency is extremely important to us as far as we're concerned."

Police, who the audit leak was initially referred to, say they will not be investigating it but the council will be.

When asked to confirm findings in the report that were published elsewhere, a council spokesperson said: "Some representations have been made about inaccuracies in the leaked report."

Cllr Bright has not responded to the Welwyn Hatfield Times but he did say during a full council meeting last Wednesday that reports should remain confidential before publishing.

The report is now published and available here.

It will be discussed on Tuesday July 30 by the audit committee and the next day by the executive committee.

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