The £525,000 initiative was overseen by the last Labour administration at County Hall in early 2017 and has since been the subject of a critical report by an independent auditor and a review by Lancashire Constabulary. Both concluded that the scheme had been operated lawfully, but the audit report criticised some aspects of how it was administered.
Auditors found that grant confirmation letters, outlining conditions, including a requirement to report exactly how the funding was used, were often sent to organisations after they had received payment. That meant it was difficult for the authority to demand progress reports and, as of November 2018, 44 percent of the 103 recipients had failed to comply with reminders to submit them.
A meeting of the council’s audit, risk and governance committee heard fears that some community groups could be discriminated against as a result.
“I’m particularly concerned that if the council doesn’t re-engage with these organisations, [then] in some way they will be prejudiced in the future,” Labour committee member Julia Berry said. “It’s almost like a cloud over them about legitimacy.”
The authority’s director of legal and democratic services, Laura Sales, told the committee that the council had been “very careful to avoid any suggestion that these organisations have conducted themselves in an inappropriate way”. However, she said would once again write to those yet to complete the requested paperwork about the projects which the grants had funded.
Conservative committee member Alan Vincent said that the only criticism he made of the groups was their “failure to respond to this council when we asked whether they had spent the money...as they said they were going to.”
“Nobody is suggesting that they have done anything fraudulent, but when they don’t respond, obviously people start to jumping to conclusions - so I would urge all recipients to engage with this process.
“In this scheme, there was no precondition that they had to respond, whereas in [others] there was - it was one of the failings of the scheme,” he added.
County Cllr Vincent requested that all councillors be made aware of the groups which had not yet sent their submissions, so that members could engage with them directly.
Labour's Lorraine Beavers said that while "lessons could be learned" about how similar schemes were run, communities had "gone forward and prospered" as a result of the funding.
Meanwhile, the senior police officer who reviewed the audit report into the initiative will be sent a photograph of one of the grant cheques being handed over by a Labour councillor. The detective had concluded that the force was “not placed to comment” on accusations of “political publicity” - because no evidence had been sent for his consideration.
However, the auditors did see a picture which showed a cheque bearing a Labour Party logo, rather than that of the county council which was supplying the funds. The report concluded that it was “clearly misleading”.
Conservative committee chair Alan Schofield said he was not suggesting that there would be “any different view” from the police if the officer had been shown the picture - but requested that the “missing information” be sent to the force. Ms. Sales agreed to do so.