Search for answers about how public health cash was spent is nearly over

The grants were awarded by the last Labour administration at County Hall during early 2017
The grants were awarded by the last Labour administration at County Hall during early 2017
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Almost all of the community groups which received cash from a controversial County Hall scheme have now accounted for how the money was spent.

The neighbourhood wellbeing initiative, which was overseen by the last Labour administration at Lancashire County Council, distributed £525,000 worth of grants to projects designed to improve public health.

County Cllr Azhar Ali, Labour opposition group leader

County Cllr Azhar Ali, Labour opposition group leader

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But the scheme – which operated in early 2017 – later came in for criticism after it emerged that 45 of the 103 organisations which benefited from it had failed to provide the authority with details of what had been achieved with the money.

An independent audit report commissioned by the current Conservative administration concluded last October that the process of allocating the funding was lawful, but criticised some aspects of how it was administered.

The investigation found that some grants were given out before the groups receiving them had signed an agreement to provide feedback.

A meeting of the authority’s audit committee heard that council officers have now received full spending details from all but eight of the organisations which received funding – seven have so far provided partial information and one group has disbanded.

Describing the development as “positive news”, Josh Mynott, democratic services manager, said the value of the grants given to groups which have yet to provide complete submissions is £15,400 – less than 3 percent of the total awarded.

“[In the case of] two organisations…we believe the required information will be forthcoming fairly soon. There are five organisations where we have some, but not all of the evidence that we want,” Mr. Mynott explained.

“It hasn’t been easy – there has been a gap in time which has meant there have been changes in personnel in these organisations.

“We will continue to pursue it…to make sure we have all the financial and monitoring information we need for these groups,” he added.

Contact has also been made with representatives of the now disbanded group which had received £1,000.

The committee has previously heard that there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the individual organisations.

Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali was the cabinet member for health and wellbeing under the last administration and had responsibility for the grant scheme. The audit report criticised the fact that money was paid out to organisations before they had completed agreements about how their spending of it would be monitored.

But County Cllr Ali said the subsequent investigations, which included a referral by the audit committee to the police, had been motivated by politics.

“This was a political witch-hunt and shows a lack of understanding about how the voluntary sector works,” he said.

“This fund was to give small organisations a step up and improve health and wellbeing.

“The audit committee has seen that [the council] is on track with obtaining the information.”

But audit committee chair and Conservative county councillor, Alan Schofield, rejected claims of a witch-hunt.

“In December 2017, the full council passed a motion to refer the matter to our external auditors – and, ultimately, an independent auditor was appointed to produce a full report.

“Although it concluded that the political decision-making by the last administration had not contravened the council’s regulations, it was nevertheless a damning report.

“Earlier this year, the eight members of the audit committee – three of whom are from Labour – unanimously decided that officers should be charged with getting more information from the grant recipients which had not then provided it.

“The council has also since put in place a better protocol for awarding grants in future,” County Cllr Schofield added.