Lancaster City Council is prepared for a potential army of 'armchair auditors' set to be unleashed on their books after recent announcements by the government.
Earlier this week, the government announced the launch of a new online search engine that shows local taxpayers when they can inspect their council's detailed financial spending and ledgers as part of greater public transparency.
Every council is required by law to make its accounts available to the public for 20 days a year. This includes every invoice, payment and receipt registered in the council's ledgers. It applies to all expenditure, not just amounts over £500.
The aim of the government's search engine is to help residents and armchair auditors to find out when they have a right to inspect and directs them to the relevant information for the open day period for over 280 councils - usually on a Council's web site.
Ministers have said they would like to see all councils sign up to the catalogue. Accounting rules have already been amended to require councils to publicise these little known rights to inspect.
For the majority of taxpayers the window of opportunity to see these documents is open now or due to begin shortly. Government minister Eric Pickles is urging citizens not to miss out on the chance to view their council's books.
"Transparency is the foundation for a strong local democracy," he noted. "It strengthens the hand of citizens by opening up the processes that show where their council tax goes. It helps councils do more for less, protect frontline services and save taxpayers' money.
"For the next few weeks, Town Hall ledgers across the country are open to the scrutiny of armchair auditors. Every concerned citizen should use this opportunity to dig into the intricacies of their council's coffers."
For all the fanfare about this search engine, almost every English local council is ready for scrutiny, including Lancaster.
The city council’s external auditor has appointed Monday 1st August 2011 as the date from which any local government elector for the city council of Lancaster may exercise their rights under sections 15 and 16 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, to request an opportunity to question the auditor about or to make objections to the accounts for the year ended 31st March 2011.
"The council always publicises the annual inspection of accounts period," a Council spokesperson told virtual-lancaster, "both in the local press and on the council's website. In addition, we publish all spend over £500 on a monthly basis."