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Investigation into council credit card used by former leader Mike Jones

Council finance chief reveals internal audit will examine transactions      

Former Cheshire West and Chester council leader Mike Jones

Cheshire West and Chester Council has launched an investigation following a Freedom of Information response detailing former Tory council leader Mike Jones ’s use of a council credit card.

As leader, Cllr Jones was the only council member with a ‘purchase card’ which was used to pay for food and drink, rail travel, parking and hotels during the course of his council business.

But former Labour councillor Ben Powell – ex-chair of CWaC’s public accounts scrutiny panel – had concerns with some of the purchases after checking details provided under Freedom of Information, including:

■ Four transactions at Conservative Party fund-raising events

■ Card used to pay off £35 NCP Ltd parking fine

■ High value expenditure at restaurants and pubs

Cllr Jones has not responded to The Chronicle’s request for a comment about the FOI, which was sent to The Chronicle by Mr Powell, who works as a researcher for Ellesmere Port & Neston Labour MP Justin Madders .

Former Cllr Ben Powell

However, Cllr Jones has provided explanations to CWaC for some of the expenditure which has been included in a statement issued by Mark Wynn, director of corporate services.

This includes Cllr Jones’s recollection that he had previously asked for £35, the amount of the parking fine, to be deducted from his councillor's allowance.

And Mr Wynn pointed out that Cllr Jones, in his role as leader, regularly met with potential external investors with a view to attracting regeneration and development to the borough, using the card on these occasions.

The Tattenhall councillor, who was leader of CWaC until Labour took control in May 2015, says he was lobbying ministers on behalf of the authority when he used the card at the United and Cecil Club (U&C) – a members-only dining club, run by Tim Lord, a former chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, which raises substantial funds for the Conservative Party.

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Information has been provided in relation to three out of four transactions.

Records reveal Cllr Jones used the credit card at four U&C events involving an £89 transaction on May 13, 2013; a £178 transaction on November 11, 2013; a £95 transaction on March 17, 2014 and another £95 transaction on April 27, 2015.

Former Chester MP Stephen Mosley received donations from the United and Cecil Club which he correctly declared on the register of members' interests.

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Cllr Jones has also agreed a £35 parking fine will be deducted from his next salary payment after it emerged he used the CWaC purchase card to settle the charge.

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His recollection is that he previously asked for the sum, relating to an NCP Ltd parking fine dating from January, 2013, to be taken from his councillor’s allowance but an extensive council investigation revealed the deduction was never made.

Among the 273 transactions listed in the FOI response, covering the period from when the council was established in 2009 onwards, are several high value amounts spent on hospitality, including food and drink, at pubs, restaurants, hotels and events. The Chronicle asked for justifications in relation to 10 examples.

Cllr Mike Jones at the judging of the Chester Food Drink and Lifestyle Festival Sausage Competition

In four cases, the council was able to provide information held on its system. For example, a £400 bill at The Arkle bar in The Grosvenor is listed as ‘Meeting with private sector – potential inward investors for Ellesmere Port’. A £271.40 bill spent at Chester Racecourse in April 2015 was justified as ‘Attendance as a key supporter at Chester Food and Drink Festival Gala Dinner’.

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A £189.75 bill spent at Chester’s Blackhouse Grill was described as a ‘meeting with external advisor and chief executive’ with the record showing former chief executive Steve Robinson later reimbursed the council £84.50.

Other transactions feature no explanation such as £319.15 spent at Chester Racecourse’s Restaurant 1539, a £448.59 bill at Nunsmere Hall Hotel, Northwich and two bills at The Architect pub by CWaC HQ for £224 and £250 respectively.

The Architect next to Cheshire West and Chester Council HQ

Minutes of the audit and governance committee from November 12, 2013, show councillors backed the recommendations of a review into the use of the Visa purchase cards, operated by The Co-operative Bank, which reduced the overall number of active 'P-cards' by 30%, from 492 down to 347.

The review indicated ‘significant weaknesses’ in control and a requirement for urgent system revision. Weaknesses included ‘no formal policy in place’ and ‘inconsistent approval and authorisation process’.

However, the revised policy that was adopted appears to relate to council officers only with no mention of a policy for cards held by councillors.

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Cheshire West and Chester Council HQ building in Chester.(Image: Picture: Ian Cooper)

Cheshire West and Chester Council’s director of corporate services Mark Wynn revealed the authority is now conducting an internal review following The Chronicle’s enquiries about the FOI response.

He said in a statement: “The council uses purchase cards for transactions where it is cheaper than raising invoices.

“We have investigated historical purchase card transactions on the card brought to our attention by the Chester Chronicle.

“In relation to payments for tickets to United & Cecil Club events, Cllr Jones has told us that he attended these events to lobby on behalf of the council and to raise its profile with Government.

Former CWaC leader Mike Jones with the new CWaC leader Samantha Dixon. Photo by Ian Cooper

“We hold documentation relating to three of the events. Each was attended by a Government minister whose portfolio aligned with the council’s ambitions at that time; to pilot community budgets, develop the Local Plan and attract funding for a cultural centre for Chester.

“We are unable to find supporting documents for a fourth transaction, however, on the basis that the value is a similar amount to the other three, we can reasonably assume it was for attendance of another event.

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“In relation to a parking fine paid for on a purchase card in January 2013, Cllr Jones believed that he had asked that the sum be taken from his salary and that it had been reimbursed.

“Because this happened four years ago it is difficult to confirm, however, our investigation has shown that this deduction was not made. Cllr Jones has agreed, for the avoidance of any doubt, that this sum be deducted from future payments.

“The council has reviewed all the transactions brought to its attention and responded accordingly and is conducting its own internal review. We accept that our previous procedures around purchase cards were not robust enough. We changed the policy in 2013 and tightened a number of procedures and significantly reduced the number of cards issued.

“Cllr Jones was the only elected member to have a purchase card and in his role as leader met with potential external investors with a view to attracting regeneration and development to the borough. The card was used on these occasions.

“We can confirm that no elected members currently use purchase cards.”

 

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