Northumberland County Council's top legal official has confirmed that a long-running review over allegedly unlawful exit payments made to former officers is set to be referred to Northumbria Police.

It marks a u-turn for the council after finance chief Jan Willis said her investigation had uncovered "no evidence of fraud or any other form of potential criminality” that would require the matter to be handed over to police at July's meeting of the council's audit committee. Ms Willis had branded six payments made to ex-officers totalling over £1 million as "unlawful" earlier this year.

The committee was told there is a key difference between the payments being unlawful and being illegal – in that the payments would have been legal “had they followed the necessary governance procedures”.

However, at the latest meeting of the audit committee on Wednesday, the council's monitoring officer Stephen Gerrard revealed the matter would be handed over to police after all. Mr Gerrard read a pre-prepared statement and did not take questions from members of the committee.

He said: "Following the report to the committee on 26 July on the review of exit payments by the section 151 officer, further inquiries have been undertaken and further advice has been sought on the matters identified. In consultation with the leader and other statutory officers, I have decided to refer the matter to Northumbria Police for further consideration.

"I have advised them I will be taking this action and I am currently assembling the detailed relevant material. These matters inevitably take a considerable amount of time to conclude.

"While the matter is under consideration I will not be making any further comment, and I would urge a similar course of conduct upon members."

Prior to the meeting, council leader Glen Sanderson admitted it had been a "difficult" period for the council but said it was "right" the matter was investigated properly and stressed that there had been a number of changes since the issues had arisen.

Speaking exclusively to the local democracy reporting service, Coun Sanderson said: "It has been a very difficult time, even though the main problems took place two years ago. We are now a very different council with a completely different team in place.

"I felt it was necessary to take extra King's Counsel advice that we have taken because of the seriousness of some of the allegations, and because some involved public money.

"It is for the residents' sake that it is right that we investigate properly. The council is a very different place now and we have moved on. This is to ensure that matters are fully investigated."

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