Watchdog eyes hefty West Sussex County Council staff pay-offs

A financial watchdog has intervened in the controversy over pay-offs for senior West Sussex County Council staff who have lost their jobs.

District auditor Helen Thompson has recommended the authority demonstrate that councillors received ‘full and complete information on all options and payments, sufficient to discharge their responsibilities towards the council taxpayer’.

She also urged it to review information reported to relevant members where redundancy and related payments were made.

This was to make sure it was enough to provide the ‘required assurances’ that adequate HR and legal advice had been obtained, she said.

Following a meeting of the council’s regulation, audit and accounts committee where the report was presented, information will be provided direct to the Audit Commission by the county council finance department in reponse to the recommendations.

Ms Thompson pointed out that five senior officers, including the previous chief executive Mark Hammond, received compensation for loss of employment totalling £569,507 during 2010-11.

As set out in a code, other payouts such as payments in lieu of notice and holiday were included within headings such as ‘salary’.

“In relation to my value-for-money conclusion, I have a duty to satisfy myself that you have proper arrangements for securing economy, efficiency and effectiveness,” she told the county council. “Proposed severance cases need to demonstrate that they deliver value for money.”

Potentially, some severance deals might include payments which were unlawful because they were beyond the county council’s power to make, or were not properly authorised.

Ms Thompson said in the case of the previous chief executive, she wrote to the council indicating a draft report to members on the termination of his contract lacked detail and transparency. The payment proposed was £249,434: she noted that six months’ pay in lieu of notice was £109,434. There was no explanation of the basis of the additional £140,000 ‘compensating agreement’.

The report did not contain much detail on the cost of the different options available to the council.

Each option should be fully costed to allow members, or the decision-makers, to assess the implications of particular courses of action for the taxpayer.

The head of legal and democratic services said he was satisfied there was sufficient information provided to members.

In the case of the four other senior officers who had received loss of employment compensation packages totalling £429,507, she had received assurances that there were adequate governance arrangements in place and ‘evidence trails’ to support the calculation and approval of such payments.