'Difficult' to get back 'unlawful' £1m payouts to former Northumberland County council staff

An investigation found that over a £1 million paid out between May 2017 and May 2022 did not have the proper authorisation. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

A council leader has said it would be “very difficult and very expensive” to take back more than £1 million in “unlawful” exit payments made to former staff.

An internal inquiry at Northumberland County Council found that seven payouts totalling £1.13 million were issued to senior county hall officials between 2017 and 2022 without having the proper authorisation.

Conservative council leader Glen Sanderson said that he did not expect to be able to recover the funds.

“The advice we have had from our experts is that it would be very difficult and very expensive to try and get that money back – even though there is a strong temptation for us to want to try" he said.

The findings follow months of investigation by the council's internal audit team.

Under the Localism Act, exit payments to chief officers must be approved by the authority’s staff and appointments committee, or by full council if the severance package exceeds £100,000.

A provision detailing these rules in the council's pay policy was removed "for reasons that are unclear" between 2019 and 2022.

County hall bosses have said that there is a difference between the payouts being unlawful and illegal – as they would have been legal “had they followed the necessary governance procedures."

Members of Northumberland County Council’s audit committee were told on Wednesday 26 July that there was no evidence of fraud or criminality that would require the matter to be referred to Northumbria Police.

Councillors debated the report detailing problems with an international health consultancy business it was part of – which was also the subject of alleged unlawful spending.

On Wednesday 26 July the county's Labour opposition has accused the Tory administration of a lack of transparency over its purchase of the Keel Row shopping centre in Blyth.

Scott Dickinson has claimed that this was done with “no cross-party scrutiny, no cross-party risk appraisal panel called or any other mechanisms that shared information”.

He added: “Behaviours of ruling elected officials needs to drastically change before anyone can accept anything and draw a line. The public would not expect us to just ignore this."

Councillor Sanderson responded, saying Labour’s comments were “mischievous and untrue” and that the Keel Row purchase had been “fully open and transparent”.

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