Government lacks transparency over local authority governance

“There is a complete lack of transparency over the government’s handling of local authorities with governance issues, MPs have warned.

A damning report from the Public Accounts Committee has called on the government to strengthen audit and governance of the “complex and fast-moving” environment that local authorities find themselves in.

The cross-party group of MPs warned that local authorities are now pursuing shared services and taking on commercial risk, but are simultaneously dealing with a “significant” reduction in resources.

The report noted that while some authorities have robust arrangements, others are under strain and have “audit committees that do not provide sufficient assurance, ineffective internal audit, weak arrangements for the management of risk in local authorities’ commercial investments, and inadequate oversight and scrutiny”.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s oversight of local authority governance has until now been “reactive and ill-informed”, the report said. However, it noted that the department has now committed to improving its oversight.

MPs said that MHCLG lacks reliable information on key governance risks and relies on weak sources of information, meaning it has “no way of pinpointing at-risk councils”. They also said that the department is not focused on long-term risks to council finances.

“There is a complete lack of transparency over both the department’s informal interventions in local authorities with financial or governance problems and the results of its formal interventions,” the PAC said.

The report claimed that taxpayers have a right to know if there are problems with their councils’ finances. It cited the demise of Northamptonshire County Council, which it said was an ‘open secret’ but only for those in the sector.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “On the rare occasions a local authority fails, the impact on local citizens is severe. Residents facing decimated services get no comfort from being told that their council’s dire finances were “an open secret”.

“The government needs to recognise the extra pressure that squeezed budgets and increased commercial risks are having on local government and make sure it is monitoring the risks effectively so that it can be alert to the impact of changes on local government.”

MHCLG has been contacted for a response.”

Appearing before the PAC in March:

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/03/whiteman-local-government-finance-needs-be-more-transparent

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman called for an improvement in local government audit.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/05/mhclg-oversight-local-authority-governance-reactive-and-ill-informed

“Carillion’s ‘relationship with auditors too comfortable’ “

“Ninety-three per cent of construction industry suppliers think the relationship between the ill-fated firm and its auditors, KPMG, was “too cosy”, according to a poll of construction industry leaders.

A further 57% of respondents believed that reforming the ‘big four’ audit firms – PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte – is a necessary step.

The poll, which surveyed more than 50 senior managers across the construction sector, found that 76% believed the Financial Reporting Council was too timid in its challenging of questionable financial information.

Mark Robinson, chief executive of Scape Group, which carried out the poll, said: “We need to be able to have faith in company accounts and the work auditors are carrying out, especially when public sector contracts and people’s livelihoods are at risk.

“Greater oversight and closer management of auditing practices [is needed] in the search to rebuild trust in the industry, but we also need to make sure we are putting in place sensible reforms that do not put increased cost pressures on an industry that is already contending with the cost of materials and reduced access to labour.”

The report from Scape Group also found that 64% of respondents thought that Carillion’s downfall was owing to debt mismanagement, acquisitions and long payment terms, created by a focus on revenue rather than profit.

The Competition & Markets Authority recently suggested that the ‘big four’ separate their audit work from the rest of their consultancy work. This move, CIPFA said, could have implications for local government.

KPMG and the FRC have been contacted for comment.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/05/carillions-relationship-auditors-too-comfortable