THURROCK Council’s accounts will be under the microscope this summer.
Led by Richard Orange, director of Orchard Publishing, journalism students will be notified of when the accounts will be open for inspection.
Orange is keen to get local newspapers and students involved as individual’s can only make requests about the information for the local authorities in their area.
Information on the inspection periods will be posted on the network’s main site as it is discovered by Orange and contributors.
“It’s public money and local government is slipping off the news agenda. While no doubt it’s better to fill your pages with celebrity stuff the local newspaper is still supposed to be looking at what the council is doing with our money. We’ve got a right to know,” he said.
Despite calls for more transparency from the UK government following the recent MPs’ expenses scandal, local councils’ provision of information on when the inspection periods occur and what will be released is poor, said Orange, who added that only one in roughly 300 authorities he had contacted had already publicised the information on its website.
“Some will release the information; others don’t like it – but they can’t refuse. Some councils aren’t very cooperative because they had copying charges on any information, but the law says you should be able to look at it for free,” he said.
To get the most out of the inspection period, Orange said students and journalists should set aside time to get to know the legislation, which falls under the Audit Commission Act 1998, and have an idea of what information or area they specifically want to know more about.
Stories produced by the network so far include the discovery of one council paying a consultant £14,000 to teach staff how to use email and consultants hired – outside of proper tendering procedures.
“Don’t get side-tracked over where the most money has been spent. Have a think about should the money have been spent,” said Orange.
“Don’t just assume that the story is the big spend. It isn’t necessarily the actual figure that matters. If you get really good at this you can smell out where the payola scheme is (…) That’s illegal but it’s the sort of thing that can happen. That’s the sort of thing that journalists should be thinking about.”