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Councils still obscuring data from armchair auditors



The government's dream of an army of "armchair auditors" to keep tabs on town hall spending is in tatters, a committee of MPs warns today.

Ministers - led by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles - have championed the publication of detailed data about the use of taxpayers' money on everyday services and big ticket purchases.

This transparency code became compulsory earlier this year and local councils have been named-and-shamed after lagging at least three months' behind.

But today's local government funding report, by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the aim of better scrutiny had been thwarted by a failure to present the information in a useful way.

Meanwhile, local councillors lack the skills and the time to properly scrutinise the delivery of complex services such as adult social care.

The department for communities and local government (DCLG) was also accused of being overly reliant on service user surveys - which are "unlikely to assess value for money".

The report concludes: "The department expects that greater transparency of information will empower "armchair auditors" to hold local authorities to account, but there is no evidence that this has actually happened."

Margaret Hodge, the PAC's Labour chairwoman, said: "The government believes that the best way to ensure that councils spend our money wisely is to rely on local residents and councillors to provide scrutiny. If this system of local accountability is to work effectively, residents and councillors must have access to relevant and comprehensible information.

"Yet, while local authorities are required to publish data such as expenditure over £500, senior salaries and land holdings and building assets, this data is presented in a way which does not make for easy and effective scrutiny by the public."

However local government minister Kris Hopkins stood by the axing of Labour's "avalanche of targets, top-down blanket inspection and micro-management of local government".

He said: "We have ushered in a new era of greater local transparency and accountability including requirements for councils to publish all spending over £500 and rights for residents to inspect the books. However, robust auditing remains in place and a more accountable and efficient way of holding local councils to account is being created through the Local Audit and Accountability Act."

The transparency code says council spending data should be published not later than one month after the quarter to which the data and information is applicable. Some councils have gone further by reporting purchases over £250, with data typically including spends on equipment and service hire.

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