COUNCIL bosses have admitted it was “not fully compliant” with internal policies before a six-figure sum was paid to an online prankster, despite defending the payments amid calls for an “urgent investigation”. 

Earlier this month, it was revealed that £493,000 was paid to Hockley comedian Simon Harris to run the Essex Coronavirus Action Facebook campaign, between June 2020 and April 2023.

While Essex County Council has admitted there was “not full compliance with the declaration of interest process” over the payments, the council insists it was “not aware of any aspect of spending which could, under the rules, be considered to have been illegal or unlawful”.

However, Mike Mackrory, leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat group, has called for an “extraordinary meeting”, specifically to discuss the payments.

He added: “Given the media interest and public disquiet and being ever mindful of the need to spend taxpayers’ money wisely, this council requires an urgent investigation by the audit and governance committee.”

Labour county councillor Aidan McGurran, who represents Pitsea, is also pushing for the opportunity to scrutinise the council’s pandemic payments.

He said: “I was extremely concerned about the amount of payments made and how they were paid. Anyone who knows anything about social media would be somewhat surprised at how much it cost.

“I’m not saying what was spent to get the pandemic messages across didn’t have any value. I’m asking why so much was paid when Essex County Council has its own communications team.”

Echo: Essex County Council says its communications team was at 'full stretch' during the pandemic.Essex County Council says its communications team was at 'full stretch' during the pandemic. (Image: Ben Shahrabi)

A spokesperson for Essex County Council confirmed the issue will be discussed, at the next council meeting on February 13.

They said: “There will be an executive statement on the matter at the next full meeting, where the council’s budget proposals will also be discussed and voted on.”

The statement added: “We have identified that there was not full compliance with the declaration of interest process.”

The council says its communications team was at “full stretch” during the pandemic. Following a review, the council says a “more efficient” model for digital communities will be introduced in March.

Mr Harris, known for his “Man Behaving Dadly” blog, has insisted the page was vital in providing information to help "prevent the spread of Covid".