The Audit Commission Act offers a rare chance to pretty much tell councils what part of their accounts you’d like to inspect, and there’s very little they can do to hold the information back.
The drawback is that the accounts are only available for 20 days a year. Their availability has to be advertised ahead of time, normally via the public notices section of the local newspaper.
I think it’s fair to say councils get a bit of a shock when members of the public actually ask to use it.
Which is why it’s probably worth praising a Labour councillor on Coventry City Council for making it his mission to get the right to inspect the accounts more widely known.
According to the Coventry Telegraph:
Labour councillor Ed Ruane, scrutiny chair of finance, also says he wants to “get the word out to residents and armchair auditors”.
He said: “It’s right and proper that everyone has the right to inspect their council’s detailed financial accounts – and all the books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them.
“Every year councils are required to open their accounting records for 20 working days for public inspection and challenge.
“These rights allow you to check any spending under the £500 threshold without having to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.”
Helpfully, the Department for communities and local government has come up with a search engine which allows you to track when council accounts become available. In some cases, that window has been and gone, but the link below might well be worth bookmarking for next year.
After all, whenever a request for financial information is refused under FOI or by a press office over the next 12 months, the Audit Commission Act offers the chance to go after the information which, for whatever reason, councils aren’t in a rush to publish.