The Deputy Mayor of Liverpool is to be removed from her chief finance role after an energy bill ‘disaster’ that could cost the city £16 million.
Mayor Joanne Anderson will take responsibility for the council’s finance brief, with her deputy, Cllr Jane Corbett, now focussing on ‘fairness’. The decision was announced at a Labour group meeting last night.
Cllr Corbett has come in for criticism after it was revealed that a series of calamitous mistakes regarding Liverpool Council’s electricity contract will cost the cash-strapped authority nearly £5m directly, with huge additional costs expected for the city’s schools and fire service.
But a Labour group spokesperson said Mayor Anderson and Cllr Corbett had already agreed after the passing of the budget, Cllr Corbett would step away from her finance brief, due to ‘further work needed’ to build on member engagement in the budget process. Cllr Corbett will continue as deputy mayor for the next year.
Mayor Anderson will also now seek to appoint an external political advisor with ‘extensive experience in finance and budgeting’ to support her and the council in setting next year’s budget.
The shocking litany of mistakes concerning the energy contract, first reported by the ECHO, included council officers failing to inform the mayor or cabinet members that the energy supplier it was agreeing to extend its contract with, Scottish Power, had stopped supplying commercial customers. As a result, no contingency plans were made and the council was automatically placed onto a far more expensive deal.
The council and the team of government commissioners already overseeing decision making at the troubled Cunard authority have now appointed independent auditors Mazars Accountants to carry out a full investigation into the debacle, with a report expected to be published at the end of the month. Mayor Joanne Anderson said she is seeking ‘full accountability’ for the costly mistakes made.
While it is clear from the damning cabinet report that the original mistakes with the contract mess were made by officers, Cllr Corbett has come under pressure as the senior cabinet member with responsibility for finances. It was revealed that she was eventually made aware of the situation on March 23 this year, but other cabinet members did not seem to know the details until around the time of a meeting around six weeks later.
Ahead of the results of the independent audit, the mayor has already made a change, moving her key ally away from the finance brief. Cllr Corbett will now focus on the council’s response to the cost of living crisis.
Speaking on BBC Radio Merseyside last week, Cllr Corbett was asked about her future in light of what she admitted was an ‘absolute disaster’ over the energy contract. She said: “The mayor picks me, I’m deputy mayor, that’s up to the mayor. This is an absolute disaster. This is on us. Yes we have messed this up big style. It’s appalling and we will get to the bottom of it.”
But the long-serving Everton councillor was also clear that she felt the initial errors came from officers at the council. She said: “On March 4 I was chairing the cabinet meeting and just before the cabinet meeting, the officers were told Scottish Power said no, we can’t give you a contract. At that time, what they could have done is put a piece of paper in front of me and say this report doesn’t work anymore, but they didn’t, so that needs to be looked at. What on earth was happening there?”
After her election last year, Mayor Anderson picked a young top team with limited cabinet experience, with her deputy mayor, Cllr Corbett by some way the longest-serving figure involved and seen as a key voice. Responding to the latest change, opposition leader Richard Kemp raised concerns about the situation moving forward with Mayor Anderson taking over the key brief.
He said: “Cllr Corbett is easily the most experienced and longest serving member of Joanne Anderson’s cabinet and she could at least have a go at understanding the complexities of a £1 billion council budget. I have seen no evidence from Mayor Anderson that she understands budget issues at all from cabinet, scrutiny committees or council meetings. She has left everything to Jane. I can’t recall her talking about budgets in any detail.” Cllr Kemp also raised concerns about the fact that Mayor Anderson has twice been declared bankrupt in the past, adding: “This is obviously a much bigger budget to manage.”
A Labour group statement said: “Mayor Joanne and Cllr Corbett had already agreed after the passing of the budget that, due to further work needed to build on member engagement in the budget process, Cllr Corbett would step away from the finance role but continue as Mayor Joanne’s deputy to alleviate the Mayor’s diary pressures.
“Mayor Joanne will be seeking to appoint an external political advisor with extensive experience in finance and budgeting to support her and the Council in setting next year’s budget.
“Cllr Corbett will be focussing on tackling poverty. Given the cost of living crisis, including unprecedented rises in energy costs, the people of our city need our support more than ever. As a result, the Liverpool Labour budget passed in March put an additional £2.7m into the Citizens Support Scheme which provides some financial respite for our most vulnerable families.
“We have made progress over the last year with our improvement journey and it is extremely disappointing that there has now been an issue with the council’s handling of the energy contract. An independent audit has now been commissioned to look into what happened. Mayor Joanne remains firm that full accountability and appropriate action is taken following the investigation.”
No further changes are proposed in terms of cabinet positions, aside from the introduction of new assistant cabinet members, whop will not be paid an additional Special Responsibility Allowance. The changes will all come into force following next week’s City Council Annual Meeting.