Ely transport boss departs as county council chief executive offers apology to coach and taxi industry after £170,000 community transport probe
PUBLISHED: 10:54 15 August 2018
Manager Jo Philpott has been removed from her post at the Ely and Soham Association of Community Transport (ESACT) following a £170,000 inquiry by Cambridgeshire County Council.
Her departure was part of a series of changes the organisation and its parent body FACT (Fenland Association for Community Transport) faced following confirmation by the council report of many of the complaints raised over the years by the taxi and coach industry.
Taxi drivers’ spokesman Dave Humphrey – who led a six year campaign to get issues with the community transport provider resolved – said: “One of the main issues raised back in 2012 was the possible miss-use of public and private charitable funds, now confirmed.
“I feel the public are entitled to ask the question, if, from the outside, a bunch of taxi drivers was capable of correctly identifying abuse of the public purse, how is it possible senior councillors on the inside, fully experienced in procedure could not recognise any of this?”
ESACT, which had funding from East Cambridgeshire District Council suspended when the 18 month inquiry was announced, is now split into a commercial arm and a charitable arm. The former will still be able to tender for council home to school contracts whilst the latter will continue to provide dial-a-ride and community transport but with new restrictions imposed by the county council.
On Tuesday county council chief executive Gillian Beasley and council leader Steve Count met with a delegation of taxi drivers following a promise made at the recent audit and accounts committee that discussed the report into the running of FACT, ESACT and its Huntingdon equivalent HACT.
“The chief executive kindly offered us her apology as promised,” said Mr Humphrey.
“But the truth is all this happened before Gillian arrived and it’s we who should be thanking her for treating us and our concerns with respect.
“Personally speaking, we need more Gillian Beasley’s’ and Cambridgeshire is fortunate to have her.
“Council leader Steve Count also apologised for the council’s previous failures. Not once did Steve attempt to dismiss our current concerns or pretend to understand all their complexities but assured us ‘since the world has been turned upside down’ he would be available to listen in the future.”
Mr Humphrey added: “The only silence is still from the FACT and ESACT board. Surely, if those ultimately responsible want the public’s confidence in the future at the very least they need to demonstrate they hold the humility and maturity to apologise.
“How can a continued display of the same arrogant contempt that allowed such abuse of the public purse in the first place, be expected to fill the public with trust into the future?”
He said: “Many taxi and coach company owners are extremely upset that the council is not legally able to undo the unlawfully gained commercial advantage FACT has accrued through the abuse of public purse.
“Again, shouldn’t the FACT board be showing they hold the integrity required for their positions and willingly dismantle such unlawful advantages? “
Mrs Beasley said: “We know that the main concern of the taxi drivers’ association was an underlying unfairness in the award of contracts and grants – and while we can’t turn the clock back, we have made significant progress to put this right for the future.
“This includes making improvements to the county council’s own policies and procedures for awarding grants and contracts to outside bodies, and a schedule for the repayment of public funds from community transport operators FACT/HACT and ESACT. “
She said that in order to be considered for Cambridgeshire County Council transport contracts all community transport operators must now hold a Transport Operator’s Licence or Hackney Carriage Licence, rather than the previous s19 licence.
“We have been very clear with FACT/HACT and ESACT that there are a number of significant management and process actions they must take in order to be considered ‘fit and proper’ to do business with,” she said.
“The council’s internal auditor has confirmed enough progress has been made by FACT/HACT and ESACT on these actions to confirm the award of 16 home to school transport contracts, and a further five local bus services - for which they were the successful bidders but whose award has been held pending the audit and accounts committee’s consideration of the audit report, and the response from the community transport operators.
“However each contract will be awarded with a ‘side letter’ – specifying continued actions the organisations must deliver by a specific time without which the contracts will be immediately terminated.
“This means that from a total available council budget for public transport of £16.6m, FACT/HACT and ESACT will have been awarded contracts representing just over 4 per cent of the total budget and for some of which they were the only bidder.”