OXFORDSHIRE's council leaders did not rise to the request for an apology after a £1.6m payout of taxpayers' money which led to accusations they were 'asleep at the wheel'.

The county council had to make the £1,607,338.57 payout to Marston Holdings Ltd, after the company challenged the way a car parking enforcement contract was awarded in 2019.

But the payment only came to light this February in a report which summarised the mistakes made and the lessons learned.

At a specially convened meeting yesterday, the council's cabinet were asked to apologise for their part in the mistakes which led to the payout.

Liberal Democrat councillor Liz Leffman said: "When will the cabinet accept their part in this? It is to be hoped that cabinet members will recognise what has happened here and will apologise to taxpayers who deserve better."

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And Lib Dem opposition leader Richard Webber, who proposed the debate take place, described the leadership as being 'asleep at the wheel' and said they should have questioned decisions taken by the senior staff at the council more thoroughly.

The report to the council's audit and governance scrutiny committee on the payout said a 'systemic failure' had led to the error and better communication between senior councillors and staff had been adopted since.

However, Mr Webber added that the audit committee's appointed member Dr Geoff Jones had said similar vows had been made in the past, but mistakes had still occurred.

Richard Webber

Richard Webber

Mr Webber said: "What he is worried about is that on every occasion he has been assured by councillors presenting their reports that the problem has been solved and there will be no repeats, he cannot have any confidence that this has been handled and that is the case this time."

Several cabinet members appear to have responsibility for the contract, including member for finance David Bartholomew, and member for transport Yvonne Constance.

At the last council meeting on March 23, Mr Bartholomew revealed he first found out about the payment in January 2020 and called for an investigation into why it had been made without councillors' involvement.

Mr Bartholomew told Nick Carter, the chair of the audit and governance committee about the payment on February 20, 2020 and was advised by officers 'no public comments should be made until the independent report had been finalised'.

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The report was detailed and took months to finish, and was also delayed by the pandemic, according to the cabinet member.

At the meeting yesterday, Mr Bartholomew was the only cabinet member to address the debate.

He said: "You cannot ask questions about something you do not know about. As members we are part-time volunteers not full time experts."

Mr Bartholomew added the council was moving to a new, more transparent system of procuring contracts.

David Bartholomew.

David Bartholomew.

The council is also making changes to its constitution which would mean officers can no longer sign off similar legal payouts without oversight from elected councillors.

Glynis Philips, a Labour councillor and member of the audit and governance committee said: "Members of the ruling group should put governance above party considerations

"Cabinet members and even the chair of audit and governance knew about this for 11 months before bringing it to the audit and governance committee.

"Not good enough – the Oxfordshire taxpayers deserve better."

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Other councillors at the meeting criticised the way the council was set up with a cabinet of senior elected members as being at fault, and called for it to be changed.

Neville Harris said: "The council are steadily losing the plot of good governance. The scheme of delegation to officers is far different under a cabinet system to when the whole council is governing the county. We don’t seem to realise that.

"The discredited cabinet system we have got is at the root of this problem."