A leaked report has revealed that Houghton Regis Town Council failed to have a legal contract in place with a company whose director later sued the council, with a payout of over £28,000.
In August 2017, the town council paid £28,859 out-of-court plus £7,000 legal expenses to What About Youth director Jan Cooper, after her three-year contract to provide community services was prematurely scrapped in 2015.
Without a signed contract in place with terms for cancellation, the council was advised Ms Cooper had a 60% chance of success in her lawsuit, and so it settled out of court.
The independent report, carried out by public sector specialists Solace In Business Ltd at a cost of over £10,000, was privately examined by Houghton Regis Town Council on Thursday, April 11.
Despite the gagging order, the report was leaked to local man Roger Giugno, who shared it on Facebook.
The report found that the town clerk Clare Evans failed to ensure there was a signed legal contract with What About Youth when the town council began using their services in 2011 and when it was renewed in following years. This left the authority open to the lawsuit later on.
The town clerk is responsible for ensuring the town council covers its legal obligations.
A previous internal inquiry led by a Central Beds Council officer tried to minimise the error as an “administrative oversight” and made its own recommendations about what should happen next. Town councillors were unsatisfied at this and voted to commission the independent report in December.
The independent report’s author, Winston Brown, wrote: “It is clear that the internal report was tailored to deflect personal criticism of the town clerk, and to find a solution that was comfortable to the town clerk.
“It is for the council as the town clerk’s employer to decide upon the appropriate action.”
The report revealed that Jan Cooper attempted to resign in December 2014 but was persuaded to retract this by the town clerk, who acted without consulting council members.
Inaccurate legal advice from solicitors also led to embarassment when the town council tried to stop Ms Cooper discussing the settlement on social media, as there was in fact no confidentiality clause in the agreement.
Mr Brown wrote: “It is clear to me the council is stoutly divided as to the way forward regarding the fallout from the community services contract.
“Some members feel that this external investigation is itself a ‘witch hunt’ against the town clerk, motivated or led by persons associated with Jan Cooper.
“Yet others strongly feel that the council has not fully accounted to the community as to the issues which led to the substantial settlement that had to be made in this matter and that the officer responsible has not been held to account.”
Jan Cooper began providing community services to the town council in 2011, in line with David Cameron’s Big Society initiative at the time.
Although town councillors were happy with the service for the first three years, according to the report problems emerged in late 2014 when Ms Cooper was accused of personal and political “bias”. She denied these claims.
After attempting to resign, Ms Cooper herself invited the council to confirm whether it had confidence in her. At a meeting on March 2, 2015, the council voted it did not have confidence and for the termination of the contract, which led to the lawsuit.
In future, Mr Brown recommended the town council should have new template contracts in place for service providers, setting out legal clauses including the impartiality of the service provider, non-involvement in political matters, performance indicators and accountability.
He concluded: “What is clear is that the council is, and must be, accountable to its electorate and must be seen to be taking appropriate action, whatever that may be.
“I recommend that in fairness to all concerned that the council makes a decision as a matter of urgency as to what action, if any, it wishes to take in the light of my report. It should then be seen to ‘draw a line’ and move forward.”
In response to the leaked report, Houghton Regis Town Council clerk Ms Evans stated: “Prior to formal consideration of the report by the council, I am unable to comment on behalf of the council on these matters.”