The Wokingham Liberal Democrats and Labour Party have slammed the Conservatives for what they claim is “misleading” campaign material.

The material surrounds Wokingham Borough Council’s finances.

Members of the Conservative party claim the borough council’s net debt stands at £83 million, which has appeared in Facebook adverts and leaflets for UllaKarin Clark, their candidate for Emmbrook.

The material states: “The independent auditor [Ernst & Young] says our net debt is £83 million against £1.3 billion in assets. Do you believe them or the Liberal Democrats trying to win your vote?”

Ernst & Young [EY] are the council’s officially appointed auditors.

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The Liberal Democrats claim that EY have not endorsed the £83 million in net debt figure, and have therefore called on the Conservatives to apologise and remove the adverts.

Senior Liberal Democrat Councillor Clive Jones said: “The Conservatives should apologise for seriously misleading the public with this false statement.

“The social media advert is misleading, and we will be asking the Conservative agents to stop posting these adverts.

“EY should not have been dragged into this political argument. It’s very unprofessional of the Conservatives.

“EY are one of our biggest auditors in the UK, and the local Conservatives have besmirched their name.”

The £83 million in net debt figure reportedly comes from Wokingham Borough Council’s Treasury Management Mid – Year Report 2020-21, published in November 2020.

Bracknell News:

Responding to the allegations, Cllr John Kaiser, the Conservative council’s Executive Member for Finance, said: “We’ve been over this many times – the Council’s politically-impartial Chief Financial Officer in his public report in November 2020 declared that the Council’s net debt is £83 million, that it has usable reserves of £130 million, and that it owns £1 billion in assets.

“Every year, Ernst & Young have audited and signed-off the Council’s accounts, and are due to audit them again this year.

“Are the Liberal Democrats calling the Council’s CFO a liar?

“If the Liberal Democrats have any evidence that the CFO has misled the Council, they should produce it – otherwise I suggest they withdraw their scurrilous accusations.

“Meanwhile, the Conservatives are getting on with the job of continuing our successful financial management of the Council, and focusing on rebuilding our communities for a post-pandemic world.”

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Meanwhile Cllr Rachel Burgess (LAB – Norreys) said: “The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are as bad as each other in being disingenuous in their campaign material – they should know better.

“Ernst and Young’s main role is to audit Wokingham Borough Council’s financial statements – the statements do not contain this figure of £83 million of net debt, so there is no way the Conservatives can legitimately claim that the auditors endorse their numbers. These numbers are based on internal council calculations, the methods for which seem to continually change in order to achieve a more favourable result, and they do not form part of the audited financial statements. The gross borrowing figure as reported in the financial statements balance sheet is significantly higher.”

The gross borrowing figure amounts to £427 million for the financial year 2020/21, according to the council’s Treasury Management Strategy 2021-2024.

Cllr Burgess added: “Whoever is running the Council after May 6, it’s clear that strong opposition will be needed to hold them to account on such misleading claims.”

Bracknell News:

EY did not confirm or deny the £83 million in net debt figure, as the last audit it published was for the financial year ending March 31, 2019.

A spokeswoman for EY said: “EY is an apolitical organisation and does not endorse individual political parties.

“All our audits of public sector organisations are conducted in accordance with the requirements of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, the National Audit Office’s new 2020 Code of Audit Practice, the auditing standards and other professional requirements including our strict codes of conduct. EY’s last audit opinion for Wokingham Borough Council was for the financial year ending March 31, 2019. EY’s audit of the accounts for the year ended March 31, 2020 will be available in due course.”

People in Wokingham Borough are voting for their representatives in 18 wards on Thursday, May 6.

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