Monday, 11 August 2014

Show me da money ! show me your accounts !

As a campaigner against a council you can often find a wall of silence when it comes to costs of a service ! councils don't like to tell Joe Public the more complex aspects of their finances because then we would know to much and that's bad if your a council. Councils just like us to pay our taxes and like it - but sometimes we need to peel back the layers to find out just what is lurking under the surface. Thankfully we have a legal right to do so via the Audit Commission Act and other such regulations. This allows the public access to the accounts of your local council in the UK for the previous financial year for a set period. Don't expect your local council to sing this from the rooftops - the notification could be just one newspaper advert in your local paper so keep a look out in the public notices section.

Here in Derby that notification appeared on 13th June 2014 for the period covering the financial year 2013/14 and you had to request to view the accounts by writing to the council (or emailing them). Derby City Councils accounts were open for viewing this year from June 30th to 25th July and it is important to notify the council of when you would like to attend, what you would like to see etc.
Potentially you can view books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts but expect the council to be cagey about certain aspects for example contracts may have sections redacted (blacked out) if considered commercially confidential.

When attending to view the accounts often these days documents are electronic. This stops you from being able to simply rifle through bills and receipts for the period which used to turn up some little gems. Make sure you ask to see a list of the accounts for the specific area of interest you are looking at so you can go through and ask to see bills and receipts of interest - sometimes you have to probe a little and if the accountant seems a bit cagey about something then maybe you have found a murky fact ! What you are doing is turning the tables on the council and instead of them holding you to account your holding them to account ! try and be polite but don't be put off ! it could be that the accountant doesn't have the depth of knowledge on some aspects of the accounts so he or she may have to come back to you at a later date with answers to some of your questions. Having a good relationship with the accountant is key as we want all the answers - not an accountant who clams up.

So there we have it ! if you want to know what your local council spends its money on - sorry your money on - go and find out ! Approach your council and ask what period of the year such viewing takes place. Make a note and look out in the local paper for notification. Remember they wont go out of their way to tell the public - so make a point of finding out officially. When you ask to view the accounts make sure you set out fully the aspects you want to see, attend on time in a respectful manner with paper, pen, pencil, camera and take your time to go through what you want to see. Do not be afraid to ask questions if something is missing or it is hard to understand. The council should be happy to help you out and answer your queries and hopefully copy you the accounts your interested in !
Now you have a new weapon in your armoury which links up nicely with the likes of Freedom of Information - also known as FOI where your questions under FOI can be aimed more carefully due to the financial accounts you have seen first hand.


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