WIRRAL council has launched a probe after it found large amounts of money had been paid to a firm which, after Googling it, officials realised was actually dissolved.

The local authority has released details of an audit carried out into payments made to a firm called Forge House Associates Limited – that had been partly run by Stewart Halliday.

In January, it was reported that Mr Halliday had been lined up to take the job of corporate director for economic and housing growth on an interim basis, but was dropped after concerns raised over how he was being paid for his contracting work.

This week, it’s been revealed 13 invoices were paid to Mr Halliday’s firm for consultancy services, despite it being listed on Companies House as dissolved after seven of them had been made – and its registration number invalid.

A report to be discussed by the authority’s audit and risk management committee next week said a total of £182,979 was paid to the firm between February 2018 and January this year.

But the document said Forge House – run by Mr Halliday and Liz Stead – was listed as dissolved by Companies House from September 25, 2018 onwards, meaning six payments were made after that date.

That was despite the pair setting up a new firm with a similar name (Forge House Associates LINCS Limited) days after dissolving the old one – but continuing to use the old name, “so as not to declare [the firm] dissolved”.

They also provided the council details of an updated bank account for the new firm – despite the payments continuing to go to the dissolved firm.

The report, to be considered on March 11, said the findings from the review identified that procedures were “followed correctly”, the invoices were arithmetically correct and VAT number quoted, and were paid to a company “in good faith”. Despite that, it said the firm “no longer legally exists”, and its “VAT number has been declared invalid by the tax authorities”.

That meant the later invoices would be deemed as “false”, and the issue has now been referred to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customers (HMRC).

A timeline of events relating to Forge House Associates Ltd drawn up for the internal audit revealed how an official only had to Google the firm to find out it was no longer operating.In January, a senior accountant met with a council official to discuss transactions relating to the economic and housing growth budget after the last payment had been made to the firm.

It said: “The Senior Accountant did not know who this company was and what services they actually provide.

“Therefore, the Senior Accountant tried to obtain this information from the company website, using Google as the search engine. The Senior Accountant could not find a website for the company.”It was agreed the matter would be further looked into.

In six recommendations made in the report, officers were told to find out why directors of Forge House did not tell the council it had been dissolved, and why they continued to quote the name and VAT registration in correspondence.

As well as being told to not make any further payments to the firm, they were also told to seek advice from HMRC to establish whether the council should try and recover money to cover the cost of VAT paid since Forge House dissolved.

It also said a review of payments made to the Growth Company after the issues were raised should be carried out – to get assurances the paid for goods and services had been provided.

A spokesman for Wirral Council said: “Some concerns were raised by council officers about potential financial irregularities regarding how a supplier was being paid. These concerns were immediately acted upon, and the contractor stopped work for the council. We have referred the issue to HMRC, and therefore cannot make any further comment.”

The report was released after Mr Halliday arrived in Wirral having worked as a director at the City of York Council, where he was embroiled in a row over consultant payments.

According to the York Press, a confidential audit report showed serious concerns over how Mr Halliday had commissioned a consultant to carry out more than £170,000 worth of work for the council.

According to the report, there was a series of policy breaches, although auditors said there was no evidence of fraud or criminality.