September 26, 2023
MINUTES OF A PUBLIC MEETING BETWEEN HARLECH COMMUNITY COUNCIL AND HARLECH RESIDENTS AT THE OLD LIBRARY, HARLECH AT 7.30 P.M. 04.09.23
Cllrs. Emma Howie and Huw Jones
Cllr. Edwina Evans (Chairman), Christopher Braithwaite (Vice Chairman), Tegid John, Ceri Griffiths, Gordon Howie, Rhian Corps, Thomas Mort, Wendy Williams, Martin Hughes, and Cllr. Annwen Hughes and Gwynfor Owen (Gwynedd Council), and 18 members of the public present to ask questions and to get answers regarding the scam that happened last December.
Question – I understand that the Councillors were not informed of the scam by the clerk until January (more than two weeks after the scam). I further understand that the Clerk’s reply to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (BBC) “that the matter has been dealt with. . .and that there will be no further discussion” was sent to the reporter without consulting with the Council. It would appear that the Clerk makes decisions on her own. Is this the case?
Answer – The Clerk informed the Chair and Vice Chair as soon as it happened, she also contacted the bank, action fraud and the Council’s insurance company and as Christmas was approaching she decided to let the other Councillors know at the January meeting. The Clerk consulted with the Chair before giving her reply to the BBC and the Clerk does not make decisions on her own without consultation with the Chair. I’m not disputing Clerk’s claim that she informed me of this in December but she told me at home in my kitchen while my family was there and I do not recall it. If I’d known before the January meeting, I would not have reacted in the council meeting in January the way I did. Annwen knows how I feel’. She confirmed that she did not authorise the payment. She appreciated that people should have answer. This has cast a shadow over her term as chair and the other Councillors as well. The Clerk told the LDRS reporter that the matter had been dealt with and would not be discussed any further, without contacting anyone else. (Giles Bentham noted that the Cambrian News had been trying to contact the Clerk without any success]
Question – Minutes are the record of a meeting, so why do the minutes of the Council Meeting on 5 December 2022 record invoices needing payment of £9000 to Oluwafemi Odunuga, although the invoices were not received until a week later? Someone might assume from those minutes that the Council had approved the invoices for payment. He was critical of Councillors for not noticing this when they accepted the minutes in January.
Answer – The Clerk added the payment of £9,000 to these minutes so as to keep the payments for December together and these minutes were signed as a true record at the January meeting. The Internal Auditor drew the Clerk’s attention to this in her report but did not comment further.
Question: What was the consultant to be doing?
Answer: Cllr Christopher Braithwaite responded that he had been in discussions about getting experts in. It’s not uncommon for scammers to send ‘consultancy invoices’ hoping they would be paid. (Giles Bentham noted that the Clerk when she paid the first £4500 ‘invoice’ assumed it was to do with the playing field. However it was paid without Council approval. Then the scammer said there was a second £4500 ‘invoice’, which she also paid. )
Question – Has there been an admission of a mistake and/or an apology from the Clerk for her action in paying £9000, upfront, for unspecified work and without seeking approval, from the Council.
Answer – The Clerk has already accepted full responsibility for her actions and has also apologised for this. The Chair noted that she had apologised to anyone who has asked. She thought the community deserves an apology and that the Council must investigate the matter fully. It will always be a stain on her 2 years as chair.
Question: General question about procedures etc, including obtaining at least 3 quotes.
Answers: Quotes required for items above £500 (Christopher Braithwaite noted that the scammer’s company was not on his list of suppliers for playing field)
(Robin Emerson noted that the scammer’s invoices had a Yorkshire address, but a Cornwall telephone number)
Clerk has now contacted Financial Ombudsman and HSBC has reopened the case. So fingers crossed that repayment will be made. She said she went to the local HSBC branch in Porthmadog immediately, but they could not do anything. She said she thought she had been receiving emails from Christopher Braithwaite [note scammer had cloned CR’s email address].
(Robin Emerson also noted that there was nothing in the contents of the invoice to indicate the scammer knew they were dealing with Harlech Community Council)
Question - Audit reports, will they be made public?
Answer - They will be, external audit still awaited.
Question: Scam awareness training?
Answer: Needs to be looked into.
Questions: Have procedures been tightened up?
Answer: Chair agreed we have got to look into our procedures. Clerk said procedures have been tightened. Payments have to be processed by one councillor and agreed by another and then paid by Clerk.
Question: There’s a lack of transparency. Payments should be put on Facebook.
Answer: Not appropriate to put payments on Facebook.
The following questions and answers were not read out in the meeting, as the person who submitted them was not present, but are listed below for completeness.
Question – Policy and process queries
1. Post the acknowledgement of the scam who updated the policy and procedures to ensure this never happens again? The Risk Register was updated by the Councillors at a full Council meeting, but not the policy and procedures.
2. What date were they updated? 9.1.23 for the Risk Register
3. Who signed them off? Chair of the Council for the Risk Register
4. If it was the community council, were they provided with a clear and detailed understanding of the policy changes/ copies to read before the meeting to ensure they were informed to be able to approve? Yes they were for the Risk Register
5. Are the members aware they can access information/ guidance from One Voice Wales to help make informed decisions? Yes, but only the Clerk and Chair have access to the password and this is One Voice Wales policy. However there is a significant amount of information on the website accessible without logging in.
6. Were the changes noted in the next month’s minutes with reason for changes? Yes for the Risk Register in the January minutes.
7. If the policy and procedures were approved by an outside source who approved them and was there a charge for the service? Not subject to being approved by outside body
8. What date did the Clerk inform the Chair of the fraudulent payment and how? This has already been answered as part of the response to the first question above.
9. Why did the Clerk feel it is a normal practice to backdate the minutes of the December 2022 to include the scam amount waiting to be paid when the scam hadn’t happened. It implied the council members had been informed of the amount for approval. Furthermore, it was only the English version had been changed. The minutes of the December 2022 meeting were not backdated, the Clerk added the payment of £9,000 to these minutes after the meeting took place.
Clerk/ Treasurers role
1. What is the Clerk / Treasurers Roles and responsibilities within the council / job description. To carry out the Council’s work and a contract has been signed detailing the responsibilities
2. What training has the Clerk received to be proficient in the role of responsibility? Learn from day to day experience and meeting with other Council Clerks who are Members of the SLCC
3. Will the Clerk/ Treasurer agree to attending training sessions to up skill re the lack of accounting/bookkeeping knowledge to ensure the accounts are correct. The Clerk will attend training sessions in due course but has assurance from the Internal Auditor that everything is done correctly
4. Will the Clerk accept full responsibility for not following the process and procedure and admit the councillors did not know immediately her error and the severity of her actions. The Clerk has already accepted full responsibility for her actions and the fact that the Councillors (apart from the Chair and Vice Chair) did not know of this straight away.
5. Confirmation is required the Clerk does not have sole control of the bank. The Clerk does not have sole control of the bank as matters have now been put in place to deal with this
6. Assurance the council now have two extra authorised account signatures and hold individual fob (online account access tool) who can implement and authorise payments. This matter will have to be looked into