County procurement system probed after social media spending oversight

Essex County Council has been asked to ensure its procurement system – worth £3.9 billion – can be trusted amid accusations it had “woeful” oversight of almost £1.5 million paid to external social media administrators and influencers.

The county council’s audit committee heard there was “no evidence of competitive procurement” that saw internet prankster Simon Harris and others receive thousands of pounds during the Covid pandemic.

Mr Harris, a well-known campaigner, who had previously raised thousands of pounds for charity, was paid almost £500,000 for social media services during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, there were other additional payments to other individuals as well. Some of these payments started before the pandemic.

Altogether since 2018 spending on the Essex Coronavirus Action Facebook group of which Mr Harris was an admin and was later renamed as Essex Is United, totalled £467,670.

The payments Essex County Council has made directly to other social media suppliers not directly related to its coronavirus campaigns totalled £560,197.

There were also payments totalling £420,500 that Essex County Council made to non-social media suppliers.

Essex County Council has said it does not know what the selection process was, or if there was a competitive process.

Councillor David King, a member of the Audit, Governance and Standards Committee, said a review should be made over its wider procurements.

Essex County Council procurement consists of three front-facing teams, People, Place and Corporate. Across these teams, the total value of all managed contracts is £3.9bn with over 1,300 suppliers managed.

Councillor King added that no evidence of any competitive procurement being undertaken for any of the contracts was a “killer”.

He said: “I think we all agree that the competitive procurement failing is so central that we should as a committee ask that we look at the wider organization to run some checks that we are content that this was because this is an exceptional circumstance.

“But our concern I suggest should be about whether or not let’s hope not there are wider issues in the extraordinarily large sums of money that we process, we should ask for that to be checked.”

The suggestion is among several recommendations councillors on the audit committee could make to improve procurement decisions’ robustness.

Committee member Councillor Aiden McGurran said that “from the start the governance was appalling”.

The committee also heard that the council relied on an “oral contract” setting out the terms of references and aims.

Cllr McGurran said: “We’ve all got some experience of contracts.

“I have never seen contracts as inadequate as these. They are woeful in many respects.

“In terms of actually explaining what work has been carried out, and particularly of any assessment of whether it was carried out (….) and the quality of [the work] is almost completely lacking.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter