Council blocks probe into headteacher who renovated a barn at public expense
A council has been criticised for launching a review of its whistleblowing policy after a headteacher made fraudulent use of his school’s credit card – but deliberately excluding an examination of the scandal itself.
Instead members of Powys County Council’s governance and audit committee accepted the advice of a senior officer who originally dismissed a whistleblower’s concerns and decided to look at a fictional case study instead.
Nation.Cymru revealed how Nick Ratcliffe, head of a PRU (pupil referral unit) at Newtown, made irregular payments with taxpayers’ money for a barn he was converting into Airbnb accommodation.
A whistleblower who reported the matter was initially told by the authority’s head of legal services, Clive Pinney, that there was no evidence of any irregularities. 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).”
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.”
Following Nation.Cymru’s article and representations by councillors including Plaid Cymru group leader Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, the governance and audit committee has decided to review the authority’s whistleblowing policy.
Conservative councillor Pete Lewington called for the review to include an examination of how the whistleblower’s information was handled by the authority. He said: “Audit Wales found little evidence to confirm that the council’s ‘zero tolerance to fraud’ message was actively promoted across the council.
“Key policies to support effective council fraud arrangements were either out of date or could not be located. The council did not have an appropriate fraud response plan in place, Internal audit found some other points as well. There is no agreed anti-fraud strategy or fraud response plan, and the council had yet to complete formal assessment in relation to fraud and corruption risk.”
But both Mr Pinney and the council’s chief executive Emma Palmer said it would be wrong to look at the case raised by the whistleblower, which should remain confidential.
Instead the committee decided to adopt a suggestion made by its independent chair, Lynne Hamilton, and look at a fictional case study.
Cllr Vaughan said: “I think it is ludicrous that instead of looking at this scandal, which the council tried to cover up, the review will be looking at some fictional case study. This is hardly likely to inspire confidence in the council’s approach to dealing with cases of fraud or encourage whistleblowers to come forward when they know something is wrong.”
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