A leading member of Aberdeen Council’s administration has been found to have breached confidentiality rules by revealing secret budget details to the public last year.
Councillor Marie Boulton was found to have broken the rules set out in the Councillor’s Code Of Conduct by a Standards Commission panel earlier this afternoon.
Mrs Boulton – the head of the city licensing board and convener of the council’s capital programme and planning committees – admitted telling a public meeting of Cults, Bieldside and Milltimber Community Council meeting financial information about the 2019 council budget.
But she claimed the detail was already in the public domain.
The figure came from a confidential briefing document outlining budget options for the local authority in the coming financial year, indicating a likely funding shortfall of around £45 million – something not yet confirmed.
Its covering page – in bright red ink- stated: “This folder contains confidential information and must not be disclosed to any third party.
“Disclose (sic) of any of the contents of this folder to any third party could amount to a breach of the Councillors’ Code Of Conduct and the Market Abuse Regulations.”
Martin Campbell, speaking for the Ethical Standards Commissioner, dismissed a semantic argument around what the warning covered, adding: “In any ordinary reading, that is a clear indication the contents were confidential.”
Mrs Boulton, leader of the independent alliance which props up the Conservative and Labour ruling coalition, sat shaking her head as Mr Campbell said there was “a lack of logic” in her argument.
The Lower Deeside member telling the panel and solicitor Duncan Love produced a letter from Ian Williams, a partner at leading accountancy firm Campbell Dallas, who had shown how a similar £44m figure could be uncovered by any member of the public, before the councillor’s breach on January 16 2019.
Under examination Mrs Boulton said: “If they had the information in front of them, most people could have worked out the figure.
“I’m not suggesting children or anything but most adults could have if you gave them the figures, yeah.”
The three documents include the council’s 2017/18 general revenue budget published in March 2018, and a briefing note on the government finance settlement for 2019/20 and a local government finance circular – both issued nine months later that December.
The calculation that “most people” could have carried out also relied on a knowledge of how much is raised through council tax in Aberdeen every year – another detail publicly available, Mr Love argued.
Mr Love told the panel: “My client’s point is if someone is interested to know what the budget deficit might be then they could trace these sources and do the ultimately straight forward arithmetical exercise to arrive at a very similar figure.”
But Mr Campbell reiterated the commissioner’s position that “it is not correct to frame this information as being accessible in the public domain as Councillor Boulton presented it.”
Mrs Boulton’s case was harmed by a failure to submit what might have been a key piece of evidence – a blog post by the council’s chief finance officer Jonathan Belford, supposedly outlining the £45m hole before she did.
She referenced it several times before Mr Campbell argued “no weight should be attached” to it as evidence.