Governance and Audit turned out to be a very short meeting!

I might have complained before about how some Council meetings have a reputation for being boring and that ‘Governance and Audit Committee is one of them’.

I was actually quite looking forward to this afternoon’s meeting because of the revelations of the council’s Auditors concerning ‘Financial Sustainability’, ‘Procurement and Contracts’, ‘Homelessness’ and ‘Void Management’ which I have outlined below.

Unfortunately, when I tried to join the virtual meeting, I could not find the joining details on the public website, Thankfully, with the help of council staff members, I was able to find the skype address in my ‘in-box’ and arrived at the meeting just in time.

The meeting began with housekeeping and a roll-call of the committee members, the other councillors, the council officers and the various auditors who were presenting reports. We then moved onto the minutes of the previous meeting but I interrupted proceedings to ask the Chair, Cllr Ian Stokes (Con), for clarification of whether members of the public were actually able to view the meeting. I pointed out that if the public were not able to view the proceedings then we could be acting ‘illegally’. With hindsight, I think a better word would have been ‘improperly’.

The Committee Clerks suggested the meeting be adjourned briefly while they checked the situation. When they returned, 10 minutes later, they confirmed that there were no instructions on the website by which the public could find out how to join the meeting and, therefore, the meeting did not satisfy the regulatory requirements of a public meeting. The meeting was then adjourned until another date (yet to be confirmed) could be arranged with proper access to the public.

Governance and Audit Committee meetings are not famous for their packed public galleries, in fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a member of the public in attendance. However, we have no way of telling how many people wanted to attend the meeting now that is supposed to be accessible by remote access and, this far into lockdown, we should have systems in place to ensure our meetings and decisions are properly visible, transparent and run in accordance with all appropriate rules and regulations.

If the meeting had gone ahead, we would have discussed a range of issues presented by our Internal Auditor including:

Procurement and Contracts

Regular readers will know that I have had questions in the past concerning the Council’s gung-ho attitude to public procurement legislation. The Internal Audit report doesn’t do much to reassure me as the following quotes illustrate:

“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative
As a result of testing undertaken, 11 ‘medium’ and one ‘low’ priority findings were identified.
Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings.
The medium priority findings relate to:
• Through review of the Service Plan in place between the Council and Welland Procurement, instances were noted where contracts had not been procured by the agreed target completion dates.
• From discussions with the Procurement Lead it was confirmed that the current Contracts Register is not fully complete and there are still gaps in regards to certain departments.
• A sample of 20 contracts from the Council’s current Contract Register were selected and tested.
Four instances were noted where no documentation was provided in relation to the documented contracts (all in excess of £50,000) and therefore the following could not be confirmed:
o That a procurement process had been followed in line with the Council’s Contract and
Procurement Procedure Rules for each of the contracts;
o That the contracts had been advertised on the ProContract e-tendering system;
o That a scoring matrix was utilised as part of an evaluation process;
o That successful or unsuccessful letters were sent out to all applicants;
o That due-diligence checks such as credit worthiness were carried out by the Council on the successful contractors;
o That a contract was in place that was signed by both the Council and the contracted party;
o That the Council had included clauses within the contracts governing the circumstances
whereby early termination or exit of the contract is permitted;
o That appropriate monitoring had been undertaken of the Contracts by the dedicated Contract Managers; and
o That the Council completed initial and on-going risk assessments for the contracts in relation to Health and Safety.”

Homelessness

Again, I have previously expressed concern that the number of households in South Kesteven has trebled in recent years suggesting we have an increasing problem with homelessness. The Internal Auditor suggests some potential reasons why the problems continue.

“Conclusion: Partial Assurance; Impact on Annual Opinion: Negative
As a result of testing undertaken, seven ‘medium’ and seven ‘low’ priority findings were identified. Management actions were agreed in respect of all the findings.
The medium priority findings relate to:
• A training log spreadsheet is in place for staff members within the Homelessness Prevention Team. It was however noted that certain staff members did not have any delivered training documented. Additionally, instances were noted where dates were not recorded for when the relevant training was completed and there is also no information currently documented for refresher training if applicable.
• From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications from the current financial year, instances were identified whereby the initial assessment had not been carried out or the initial contact was not made promptly with the applicant and instances where decision letters were not sent to the applicant promptly.
• Testing identified one instance where the Prevention or Relief Duty was note ended within 56 days and an extension had not been applied. It was also noted that a supporting decision letter was not produced and sent to the applicant once duty had ended.
• The Council has a Temporary Accommodation Procedure in place although it was noted that the Procedure had not been updated since 2015. It was also noted that the Procedure does not cover the booking of emergency accommodation. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify a need to consider value for money, or a list of approved hotels and bed and breakfasts which the Council has negotiated favourable rates with.
• From testing a sample of 20 homelessness applications which had resulted in the allocation of temporary or emergency accommodation during the current financial year instances were noted whereby a Temporary Accommodation Request Form had either not been completed or authorised, no evidence of any action being taken to recover monies owed to the Council by tenants with outstanding utility charges or where emergency accommodation costs had been covered by the Council.
• From a review of the Temporary Accommodation Rent Procedure it was noted that it does not provide adequate detail to allow rent officers to recoup rent and utility charges. Additionally, the Procedure does not specify the point at which a Notice to Vacate should be served and does not provide any guidance on the recovery procedure for outstanding utility charges.
• At the time of audit, it was noted that there is currently no monitoring undertaken by the Homelessness Prevention Team to identify repeat users of temporary or emergency accommodation.

Voids Management

The Internal Audit of the way SKDC manages empty properties (aka ‘Voids’) was slightly less disparaging although it was noted:

“At the time of audit, the Council did not have a Voids Policy in place. Through discussion with the Head of Improvements and Repairs it was confirmed that a Voids Policy is due to be drafted”.

I am now trying to find out whether the voids policy has been drafted and/or adopted. This is partly in preparation for the meeting when it comes back from its adjournment and partly to try to make sense of why at least one council property in Market Deeping has been empty for more than six months. I am sure there must be a simple and reasonable explanation.

Financial Sustainability

The External Audit Plan was also due to be presented to this afternoon’s meeting. The audit report (which costs over £40,000) has rightly drawn attention to the potentially massive impact of Covid19. However it also identified following significant VFM risks (Value for Money):

“For 2020/21 the Council is proposing a balanced budget with no use of General Fund reserves.
The Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) to 2022/23 shows funding gaps of £1,009k in 2021/22 and £1,302k in 2022/23 and officers are working on addressing these gaps in early 2020/21. The Council have recently appointed a new Chief Executive and their first priority is to update the Corporate Plan.
An updated MTFS will be developed to supported this updated corporate plan.
We will review the work the Council is undertaking to address the gaps identified in the MTFS. We will also review the updated Corporate Plan and its effect on the MTFS.”

When Karen Bradford arrived as Chief Exec of SKDC earlier this year, she mentioned the need for a refresh or rewrite of the Corporate Plan. I agreed and drew her attention to the previous colourful plan we had approved which was full of pictures of exotic animals but rather light on practical planning.

The review of the Medium Term Financial Strategy will, it is hoped, be completed before too long and the Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr Adam Stokes (Con), will have to present it to the relevant committees for scrutiny and approval.

I am sure the Chair of the Governance and Audit Committee will have no misgivings about asking challenging and difficult questions of the Cabinet Member for Finance; He is, after all, his father!

2 thoughts on “Governance and Audit turned out to be a very short meeting!

  1. Interesting reading that they did not check the Public Engagement part of the meeting. My dealings with SKDC over the issues I kept highlighting at Riverside Flats have been very difficult and you begin to question the ability of some people & why I got no support from ANY CONSERVATIVE Cllrs at any time.
    Also, the issues over the Boxing Day Event where anything goes provided it happens because some Cllrs WANT IT TO, not because it is unsafe.

  2. Omg … am I imagining it or is Skdc run by a bunch of amateurs who have no idea how to run and manage what is a VERY large company budget …. !!!

    There seems to an obsession with grossly what seem to be very outdated And extremely cumbersome policy rules and management of said cumbersome processes. Maybe the new chief exec has had the experience of running a large private company?? If on the other hand they come from another civil service or local government sphere then god help us taxpayers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s