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Local authority governance must be protected – CIPFA

Cumulative changes to current governance standards for local government could risk eroding the “checks and balances” system and leave the public interest “vulnerable”, Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has said.

He added that current central government proposals to abolish protection for chief finance officers through the removal of the designated independent person (DIP) are “worrying” on the back of changes already made to close down the Standards Board and, with the abolition of the Audit Commission.

“We are concerned that taken together over the past few years we have unfortunately seen many of the traditional safeguards of the public interest weakened,” said Whiteman. “These checks and balances were introduced to ensure that professionally qualified staff areprotected when they speak truth unto power in the public interest in those rare cases where the standards of elected politicians fall short of the expected mark.”

The CIPFA CEO stated that given the changes already made, the government should maintain the present system where the administration of an Elected Mayor or Leader must seek the agreement of all councillors of all parties to appoint an independent person to investigate their complaints against a council's most senior officers.

Whiteman’s comments follow the broadcasting of a BBC Panorama programme, whichexplored issues relating to the governance and accountability of elected officials in local government.

The investigation found that Lutfur Rahman, the Bangladeshi mayor of Tower Hamlets, has more than doubled funding recommended by officers for Bengali-run charities.Opposition councillors say they believe the grants were made in return for electoral support.

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, told the BBC: “Panorama has unearthed some very serious allegations that demand an answer. I think the allegations or questions that Panorama raise are of a completely different magnitude to worries and concerns that I have with other councils.

“I have powers to put in an inspector to look at the way that the council is being run.”

However, Whiteman argues that the further loss of safeguards puts local government’s hard won reputation for probity at risk.

“In the years ahead we could see more examples, as identified by Panorama, of public concern and questions over whether good governance and public administration are being followed if the checks and balances are removed,” he said. “UK Local Government currently has a global reputation for its high standards of governance, and by international comparison is effective in protecting the public purse from corruption, fraud and gerrymandering.”

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