Audit Scotland is investigating concerns after Argyll and Bute Council allowed debts totalling over £50,000 from two businesses to mount up unchecked.
The council was this week accused of ‘double standards’, with questions about whether poverty-stricken families owing rent or Council Tax would be allowed to miss payments for five months.
The business rates and other debts were accrued by Clydelink Ltd and GRM Marine Ltd, then trading as Silvers Marine.
GRM went into provisional liquidation in February, but Clydelink is still trading, and runs the Kilcreggan to Gourock ferry – subsidised by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), which the local council is a partner in.
The figures were revealed in a Freedom of Information request, which on March 19 showed GRM Marine Ltd, trading as Silvers Marine, owed the council £34,475 for non domestic rates – nearly £10,000 of that was for the previous financial year, and both bills had been issued on October 8.
And Clydelink, which pays the council for use of Kilcreggan pier, owed £18,106, dating from October onwards.
The council this week confirmed that external auditors were providing information to Audit Scotland after concerns had been raised about the problem.
The issue was discovered by Harry Cathcart of Kilcreggan, who had contacted the council with concerns over very late payments for pier dues as early as last summer.
“It is inexcusable to allow Clydelink to build up months of arrears for berthing and pier dues since October 2013, particularly when there had been no effective collection system in place until July that year,” he said this week.
“Moreover the failure to use the simple remedy of banning the ferry company from using its pier until the monies were paid is a clear example of double standards, when council tenants in arrears of rent would not enjoy such a benign outcome.
“In the private sector such a lax practice would not be tolerated.”
GRM Marine went into administration in February; before then, Silvers Marine had been named three times within 16 months in public notice advertisements in the national press to appoint liquidators, then it changed its name to Silaqua, and later again to GRM Marine.
The Silvers Marine dockyard and other assets in Rosneath were bought last month by GSS (Plant) Ltd, a highly respected company which is entirely unconnected with GRM, Silaqua or Clydelink.
A council spokesperson said it was inappropriate to comment on the amount of money still owed by Clydelink, GRM or Silaqua, or whether council officers had contacted SPT concerning reimbursement being taken directly from SPT and then deducted from SPT payments to Clydelink.
Clydelink took over the contract on April 1st 2012, but a separate FOI request revealed an email from the council to Clydelink on July 13 of that year, supplying bank information so that a BACS transfer could be made – 14 weeks after the company had started using the pier.
The council was this week unable to say when the first payment had been made for berthing and passenger dues.
The spokesperson added: “We have the same established and robust procedure for recovering debts, whether from an individual or a company.
“As well as following our usual internal process, we will also try to find other ways of resolving the situation – these will vary depending on the type of debt and debtor, but could include negotiation, an agreed payment plan or a range of other solutions.
“If these other alternatives have been exhausted, then in all cases arrears are referred to the council’s legal team who will use the court process to recover the outstanding sums.”