The boss of an axed quango which employs 100 people in Solihull has penned a furious letter to ministers after it was accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on an away-day at Newmarket racecourse.
Michael O’Higgins, chairman of the Audit Commission, denied spending £8,000 on a “day at the races”.
It follows an announcement by Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, that the Audit Commission is to be scrapped, saving taxpayers £50 million.
Mr Pickles claimed: “The corporate centre of the Audit Commission has lost its way. Rather than being a watchdog that champions taxpayers’ interests, it has become the creature of the Whitehall state.”
And his Department published a list of supposedly wasteful spending by a range of Government bodies - which included an £8,000 Audit Commission event at Newmarket last year.
Mr Pickles has also criticised the watchdog for encouraging councils to scrap weekly bin collections and for planning to recruit a new chief executive on a £240,000 salary. Mr Pickles vetoed the salary last month.
In his letter to the minister, Mr O’Higgins said: “The Commission made payments to Newmarket racecourse for meeting and conference facilities. These were briefings for local government and NHS bodies on technical issues that might arise from the current programme of audits.
“The dates were not race days. Racecourse facilities often offer good value for meetings compared to hotels or conference centres.
“The £8,000 payment to Newmarket was for three events training 90 officers from local authorities and the NHS – around £67 a head. And not a horse in sight!”
He told Mr Pickles: “We have been disappointed and dismayed at the misleading press reports in response to your announcement.
“I am sure that you share our concerns at these factual inaccuracies, and would not wish them to be repeated.”
He also insisted that the Audit Commission had never forced councils to introduce fortnightly bin collections.
“The Commission has only ever encouraged local authorities to review their waste management plans and rubbish collection arrangements.
“It is the Commission’s duty to push for maximum value for money in local services. But it holds strictly to the view that it is for local elected members to decide their own policies, which includes the frequency of bin emptying.”
The Audit Commission was created as an official watchdog to scrutinise public spending by Conservative Minister Michael Heseltine in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
Solihull MP Lorely Burt (Lib Dem) said: “I know the Audit Commission offices in Solihull and nobody there was living the high life.
“I understand what Eric Pickles is trying to do and in the long run this may benefit taxpayers. But I am worried about the people whose jobs may be threatened by this.”