Council denies £300,000 ‘fighting fund’ claim amid scrutiny row

Council officials have denied the existence of a £300,000 ‘fighting fund’ to pay for court battles amid a row over scrutiny.

Sandwell Council House
Sandwell Council House

Tory councillors in Sandwell say questions must be asked over claims that cash from the public purse had been “set aside” by the Labour-led authority to pursue legal claims against a local blogger.

But they say attempts to raise the issue at a council meeting on Tuesday were blocked in advance by council officials.

Liam Abrahams, Conservative councillor for Great Barr with Yew Tree, said: “This council is deliberately trying to disrupt the democratic process.

"By denying us our right to a proper debate, they are closing ranks and avoiding scrutiny. It does make you wonder what else are they hiding."

A Sandwell Council officer told the Conservative group that questions would be rejected if they were "themed on the same issue" or "cannot be responded to without disclosing confidential or exempt information".

One of the rejected questions, submitted by Tividale councillor Emma Henlan, said: "It is well publicised that Sandwell Council have a £300,000 fighting fund to pursue claims against a local blogger.

"Given the deputy leader authorised further liabilities for ultimately failed legal claims against that blogger, how much more money is the deputy leader willing to spend on this pursuit, rather than spending it on services that deliver for the people of our ward in Tividale?"

A Sandwell Council spokesperson said questions submitted by the Conservative group "were not suitable for a public meeting" as some contained incorrect information.

"There were also wider considerations around employment law and the risk of personal information being discussed in a public forum which would not have been appropriate," the spokesperson added.

"The council recognises the importance of councillors effectively engaging in the democratic process and we will be offering support and training to councillors to help them do this.

“The council has no £300,000 ‘fighting fund’. For a number of years, the council has earmarked balances for short-term commitments.

"Since at least the financial year 2014/15, the council has regularly retained a sum of money for corporate and related investigations.

"In November 2018, the council was considering taking legal action against an individual. In order to facilitate this action, specialist legal support was required.

"The action did not proceed and so a significant proportion of the estimated £300,000 referred to was not used."

Councillor David Fisher, who represents Charlemont with Grove Vale for the Conservatives, said he was shut down when he attempted to raise the issue at the full council meeting.

He said decisions by the "highest ranks" of the council were making it impossible for the Tories to "provide scrutiny".

"Whilst we have been able to scrutinise some the Labour group’s most recent failures, there is a barrier with scrutinising the unelected bureaucrats and apparatchiks at the highest echelons of the council," he added.

"These barriers must be lifted to scrutiny so that we can ensure that every single penny of taxpayers money is spent wisely."

West Bromwich East MP Nicola Richards said it was a "disgrace" that the opposition were being blocked from asking questions.

“The council must do the right thing and let all parties debate the important issues,” the Conservative MP said.

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