The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brookes, whose dogged persistence led to the full disclosure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, has posted the following useful reminder on her website:
The Orchard News Bureau has provided a helpful list of Public Access to Local Authority Financial Information in London boroughs and as yet, Newham has not published details on inspection dates, unlike neighbouring Barking & Dagenham, Hackney, Redbridge or Waltham Forest. Access for the previous financial year was between 13 July and 9 August 2010, so clearly there has been a delay. However, Newham's draft Statement of Accounts is available online.
For 20 days in June, July or August, every council is legally required to open up its draft accounts for public inspection. Under the Audit Commission Act 1988 you have a legal right to see detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills, the right to make copies and the right to raise other points of interest with the auditor. This is one of the most powerful rights citizens in the UK have to uncover the nitty gritty details of how public bodies are spending public money.
Chances are if you rock up to your council office you may be the first one to do so in years. But don’t be put off. You have every right to be there and too few citizens make the effort to hold local councils accountable for the money they spend in the public’s name. Certainly as local newspapers disappear it could be that the local nosey parker is all that stands in the way of a corruption scandal continuing undetected for years.
So if you have a hankering to more closely inspect Newham's accounts and related documents (comprising books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts) I'll provide an update as soon as I hear when it plans to open its books.
Let's hope that the council remembers - poor old Richmond-upon-Thames council was forced to revise its inspection period because the original was illegal, as it had failed to comply with new regulations from March 2011 that required it to post a copy of the public notice on its website at least 14 days in advance of the commencement. Luckily that problem is now fixed.
In October 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that voters are entitled to examine local authority contracts, including those relating to Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contractors, unless there is a there is a 'strong public interest' against disclosure.