Answers over a Bedford school's missing £1.2 funding are no closer

The money was destined for Mark Rutherford school - but disappeared into Luton Borough Council's coffers

Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:26 pm
Updated Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:28 pm
Mark Rutherford School

An intense dialogue between a local authority's opposition group leader and its finance director is no nearer revealing why more than £1m regeneration money disappeared in the coffers of Luton Borough Council.

A written report called for by Liberal Democrat Barnfield councillor David Franks was presented to a meeting of the council's scrutiny finance review group.

With the national investigation service (NATIS) inquiry still ongoing, the council's director finance, revenues and benefits Dev Gopal said he was limited in what he could say about "a highly sophisticated external criminal operation".

Councillor Franks asked: "Did Mark Rutherford School get its money? And where did it come from?

"Was it from SEMLEP (South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership) reserves, council reserves or did the government come up with another £1.2m?"

Mr Gopal replied: "Yes. At this stage I can't go into that detail. If we go more into the mechanics of it I'll have to contact SEMLEP to come up with a joint statement.

"But one of the things is the school has got its funding. The project is going."

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"I understand the council is the accountable body and holds the funds, so is it true the council dispenses funds in accordance with instructions received from SEMLEP?" he said.

Mr Gopal responded: "The council is an accountable body, absolutely, so the fund is released to the local authority for projects approved by the SEMLEP board.

"Once the board agree those schemes, we get an instruction from them and we release the transfer from the bank account here."

Councillor Franks inquired whether Mr Gopal recalled the date or month when the fact that £1.2m was missing was discovered.

Mr Gopal explained: "Again, I would say we're going into specifics on this matter. As it's an ongoing investigation it's not information we've provided. I'm sure you appreciate that."

Councillor Franks retorted: "Indeed, I don't appreciate it."

He pointed out that the information had been reported on Bedford Today's sister site Luton Today and questioned why if the editor knew when the cash had disappeared, the meeting could not be told.

The initial report was carried on this website - and in Luton - back in June 2020.

"But I'll not be going into the detail or chronology of when it happened, how it happened, whether there was an email or a phone call, or what was the date. I don't have that specific information."

Councillor Franks said: "The fact is it's nearly two years since this money went missing.

"An investigation is going on which we're told doesn't seem to be getting anywhere near the truth. It ought to have been concluded ages ago.

"The more we're denied basic answers, such as when it was known the money went missing, please don't be surprised when people start thinking we're heading for yet another cover up."

Mr Gopal remarked: "I don't stand by all the assertions from councillor Franks with due respect. We're not restricting information.

"What we're saying is from a legal point of view, when there's an ongoing investigation, I can't breach that and start to disclose information which I've been instructed not to comment on.

"It's not we're withholding information deliberately."