Thursday, 2 June 2011

Cornwall Council payment cards

This afternoon the Corporate Resources scrutiny committee was able to quiz officers about the Daily Telegraph story on the use of credit cards by the authority.

Over the days since the story broke, the Council has produced a series of statements in answer to some of the items of spend. We know, for example, that many of the overseas transactions are actually in local currencies and the actual amount spent on those items (in sterling) is pretty tiny. We also know that much of the spending was incurred by the Council but on someone else's behalf and that the money was repaid to Cornwall Council.

The officers weren't able to answer every question - and there will be a full review and report by the end of the month - but we got a stage further today. We know there are 509 payment cards and that their use is standard practice and saves money in transaction costs - £33 per transaction. Being payment cards, no interest ever accrues and we got confirmation today that no fraud has ever been suspected in the use of these cards.

The authority is happy to answer questions on individual spending lines and they are putting answers on the website. But there is resistance to looking at the spending as a whole to be able to reassure members as to who is going on overseas trips and whether the council is paying for officers or consultants to stay at hotels in Cornwall.

This isn't the end of the issue and I suspect that it might inspire more journalists to ask more FoI questions to get a headline for themselves. But we have most of the answers and I'm certainly reassured that the use of the cards is right and proper and Cornwall Council (and the County Council before it) is not wasting resources.

However, it is clear that the process here has not been without hiccups. We need to know why the Telegraph was given the wrong data and we need to know why someone didn't check the data before it was sent. We also need to make sure that our response to negative stories is right first time. For all that we might protest about the use of the term credit card, the council itself used that term in its first response.

We know that the Council has a fantastic media team - they won an award today for their response to the flooding in mid Cornwall - but I would suggest that the response to the Telegraph story was not their finest hour.

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