'Farmgate' report leaks reveal concerns over Manor Farm tenancy
- Credit: Milton Keynes Council
The auditor whose sickness forced Cambridgeshire County Council to hire Mazars to review his ‘farmgate’ report was back at work within weeks – in his other role with Milton Keynes Council.
On December 7, 2020, with his 480-page report almost complete, Cambridgeshire’s chief executive Gillian Beasley revealed that Duncan Wilkinson “would not be able to complete the audit due to his sickness”.
It led to the hurried appointment of global accountancy firm Mazars to “complete the audit”.
On January 26, 2021, Mazars updated the audit committee on progress of their £107,000 report – before it was finally presented in March.
Mr Wilkinson, meanwhile, continued with his shared services duties that included presenting audit reports to Milton Keynes Council on December 1, 2020, and on January 27, 2021.
Mr Wilkinson did not return to Cambridgeshire.
The county council, whilst accepting that Mr Wilkinson continued to work with Milton Keynes Council, was not able to explain why he had also taken up a role with the newly formed West Northamptonshire unitary authority.
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A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire County Council said: “Mr Wilkinson did not return to the role of chief internal auditor (CIA) after his illness.
“The CIA is now an auditor employed by Cambridgeshire County Council.”
The spokesperson added: “The remaining shared service for internal audit between Northants and Milton Keynes is also being dissolved as part of the wider work around the former LGSS partnership.”
The council said on July 13 that “Mazars were commissioned in December 2020 to complete the review that was initially started by the internal audit service, but which couldn’t be completed due to illness”.
The council said that the detail of Mazars’ work on the internal audit is in the publicly available minutes of the March 5 audit and accounts committee meeting “specifically Nigel Layton of Mazars, set out the background to the audit.
“He advised that Mazars had been instructed following an extraordinary meeting of the audit and accounts committee of December 23, 2020.
“At that meeting, it had been agreed that the chief executive would appoint an independent auditor to complete the investigation into Manor Farm, as the chief internal auditor was unable, due to sickness, to complete the internal audit into this matter. “
The spokesperson added: “At the time of their appointment, it had been stressed to Mazars that the timetable was extremely tight and non-negotiable.
“Mr Layton advised that he had not repeated much of the detailed audit work undertaken as part of the internal audit or fact checking, but he had reviewed the work performed and the evidence contained.
“Additional actions carried out by Mazars included a full email review and additional interviews.”
A year after soon to retire chief executive Gillian Beasley intervened, it can be revealed that one reason for delayed publication of the farmgate report is the fear of being sued.
Legal advice given to the council shows that the Mazars report falls well short of a conclusive assessment.
Lawyers said that Mr Wilkinson only ever got to the stage of producing a “draft internal” and heavily annotated report that has never been completed.
The council was told that so far only an “incomplete and inconclusive” report had been prepared.
Without that the council faced “a real and substantial” risk of legal action if only an executive summary was published.
A legal opinion emphasised that the “internal audit has not been completed”.
It explained that Mazars did not complete the internal audit and weren’t asked to do so.
“All they had to do was review the audit process,” councillors heard.
Mazars’ role did not include fact checking, but simply to draw findings of the draft report into recommendations for changes to council practice.
Councillors must await the outcome of a potential code of conduct challenge to the former deputy council leader Roger Hickford, whose tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, created the ‘farmgate’ controversy.
The issue was passed to the council’s constitution and ethics committee but they are not expected to make their findings public until 2022.
The audit and accounts committee voted not to release specific details of the chief auditor’s findings to give time for consideration to a potential breach of the code of conduct by Mr Hickford.
Those councillors who have seen a draft of the farmgate report are forbidden to speak about its findings.
These include specific detail about how Mr Hickford obtained the county council tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, and his subsequent interactions with officers.
The draft farmgate report encompasses copious email exchanges between Mr Hickford and officers.
Mr Wilkinson’s findings were that:
1: The relationship with Cllr Hickford at Manor Farm and farms estate officers had deteriorated to the extent it was “now unworkable”.
2: Cllr Hickford’s attitude had been “intolerable” and no council staff wanted to work with him
3: He had “abused his power as a councillor” and there was a substantial conflict of interest between his role as a councillor and that of a council tenant.
4: The extension Cllr Hickford proposed for Manor Farm was “out of proportion”,
5: Officers felt £183,000 in loans “seems a lot” for a “large living room and fourth bedroom” to be added to Manor Farm.
The report also throws light on a visit by a county farms estate officer to Manor Farm.
The officer later complained of Cllr Hickford’s alleged “aggressive behaviour and intimidating” attitude.
It also produces the email which raised the issue, with Cllr Hickford allegedly raising his voice at the officer, and a builder asking the officer as she walked from the house if she was OK.
Mr Hickford’s partner is said to have left the house to offer an apology to the female officer.
Another council farms estate officer complained of bullying but according to the farmgate report was told by a more senior officer “to be careful” about what he alleged.
In a statement to the local democracy service, Mr Hickford –who quit the council in February, 2021 – criticised the council’s farm team for what he described as “incompetent project management”,
He said he was “forced to abandon” his business venture at his tenancy and leave the property “due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
Mr Hickford said he resigned “because the situation has been made untenable for me to continue”.
The county council has refused to say what actions have been taken to reclaim – or invoice – Mr Hickford for outstanding payments from his time as a tenant.
These are thought to be in excess of £50,000.
A council spokesperson said: “As confirmed to audit and accounts as part of the management action update on July 13, ‘a further financial transactional issue has been referred on for action to the assistant director: property and external solicitors”.
The county council was also asked about the farmgate report which mentions allegations of bullying of an officer by Mr Hickford.
The spokesperson added: “As reported to audit and accounts meeting on July 13 … ‘items had been referred for further consideration under processes including the members code of conduct.
“These included ‘inappropriate behaviour towards staff’”.