Council accused of trying to cover up school fraud
Powys County Council has been accused of seeking to cover up irregular purchases made by a headteacher with taxpayers’ money for a barn he was converting into Airbnb accommodation.
A whistleblower who reported the fraudulent use of a council credit card at the North PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) in Newtown was initially told by the authority’s head of legal services there was no evidence of any irregularities, and it was only when they contacted Audit Wales that any action was taken.
The whistleblower was also present when another senior council official instructed an administrative worker in the unit to delete the school’s Amazon account, thus eliminating evidence of the unauthorised purchases. Unknown to the senior official, another administrator had copied details of the transactions, so the relevant information was retrievable.
The whistleblower sent an email detailing her concerns to a council official. It included a section which said: “Having had and overheard conversations with [a colleague] who like me was worried about whistleblowing on a headteacher, it appears that during the summer holidays of 2021 and thereafter, [the headteacher] had purchased a number of work tools such as spades, shovels, pickaxes, post hole diggers, driveway fabric etc that have never been seen at the PRU unit where we work. It should be noted that those are only a few items that I have personally been aware of, so can only comment on those.”
On September 16 2022 Clive Pinney, the council’s head of legal services and monitoring officer, wrote to the whistleblower stating: “Your whistleblowing complaint was investigated by the council’s fraud investigation team. Copies of all purchase cards transactions and accompanying detailed invoices were obtained and the PRU was visited for a stocktake. The detailed investigation has provided no supporting evidence in respect of the allegations made within the whistleblowing referral and therefore the case has been closed with no further investigation or action being taken.”
The whistleblower then contacted Audit Wales, which was in touch with the council.
On January 26 the whistleblower wrote to Mr Pinney stating: “I have recently become aware that goods that staff have never seen before have recently been seen in the PRU shed … Perhaps it would be prudent to consider why a headteacher would need to purchase items such as a humidifier (there is no damp in the building), driveway fabric (we have no driveway), decking varnish and decking stripper (we have no decking), a post hole digger (we have never sunk anything into holes in the grounds), Roughneck shovels and spades (I had already been sent to purchase cheap garden tools from a local garden store for the lockdown garden project, not the Roughneck brand).
“Following my disclosure, the head teacher [Nick Ratcliffe] blocked the office administrator’s access to the school Screwfix account. This was then swiftly followed by the headteacher’s line manager instructing the office administrator to shut down the school Amazon account, thus deleting all order history.
“I witnessed these events, and they were carried out in a very urgent and intimidating manner. I was then made aware that the headteacher had instructed at least three members of staff to watch my whereabouts and report them to him. This I believe to be very unprofessional behaviour and could be construed as bullying or retaliation against a whistleblower.”
Subsequently, the whistleblower received a letter from Mr Pinney on June 30 2023 which stated: “I can advise you that as a result of your whistleblowing complaint, a disciplinary investigation has been undertaken which has resulted in Mr Ratcliffe leaving the employment of the council. Please accept our apologies for the length of time it has taken to reach an outcome to your complaint.”
The whistleblower was supported by Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, leader of the council’s Plaid Cymru group. He said: “This matter has been handled extremely badly and is another example of the council’s cover-up culture. Things must change.”
On On December 10, Cllr Vaughan emailed Cllr Pete Roberts, the council’s cabinet member for a learning Powys this series of questions:
* Can you please confirm why the head of the Newtown PRU unit has left his post suddenly this Summer without the knowledge of the management governors?
* Is it correct that he was buying a substantial number of items on the school credit card?
* What was the total value of these purchases?
* Has anyone checked back on the monthly card bills?
* Have all the items been recovered?
* Has the matter been referred to the police? If not, why not?
* Has an NDA [Non Disclosure Agreement] been done with him? If one has, why ?
Cllr Vaughan has not received a response.
Nation.Cymru asked the council for a statement. A spokesperson for Powys County Council said: “The headteacher of the North PRU left his position in the last academic year before an investigation could be concluded. The Management Committee were made aware of the situation. An internal investigation has also been concluded in regard to the situation.”
We asked whether the investigation report was publicly available but did not receive a response.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.