” ‘Major shake-up of public audit needed’ “

“A “radical overhaul” of public service audit is needed to give the public confidence over how its money is spent, according to recommendations from a think-tank.

Increasing financial pressures and people’s dissatisfaction with public services means now is the time for a shake-up of audit for central and local government, the authors of a report for the Smith Institute said.

Tax is likely to increase in the future as a result of demographic pressure on areas such as health and social care, and these can only be justified if the public is “confident” its money is being well spent, authors John Tizard and David Walker told the report launch yesterday.

“Fiscal pressure is likely to rise in the short run, depending on the nature of Brexit. It will certainly grow in the long run, as public spending accommodates demographic change: an older population will demand more health and social care and other services,” Spending fairly, spending well said.

It called for the creation of two new government bodies and more responsibilities given to the National Audit Office to improve public audit.

The NAO would take over audit responsibilities for the NHS and local government, the report suggested.

Authors audit commentator Tizard and David Walker, former head of communications at the Audit Commission, urged for the creation of a Public Interest Appraisal Unit, which would evaluate value for money before spending decisions are made. The NAO assesses government spending decisions after they have been made.

They also said the government should set up an Office of the three Es – equity, efficiency and effectiveness. This body would be responsible for looking at which groups benefit and which groups lose out on certain spending decisions. …”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/02/major-shake-public-audit-needed

Local authorities – cut, cut, bleed dry

Huffington Post has done a long article on the effect of austerity on six councils all over the country – Labour and Conservative.

It ends with this summary:

“The Facts And Figures

Cuts to local authority budgets began in 2010 under the coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, as part of the wider reform agenda to reduce the deficit following the financial crisis of 2008.

But almost a decade on the Local Government Association (LGA) says more and more councils are struggling to balance their books, facing overspends and having to make in-year budget cuts.

Some of the basic facts and figures highlighted by the LGA are;

– Between 2010 and 2020 councils will have lost almost 60p out of every £1 the government provides for services.

– Main government grant funding for local services will be cut by a further £1.3billion (or 36%) in 2019/20.

– It is estimated councils would need an additional £8billion more than they are expected to have in 2024/2025 to deliver the same services as today.

Against this financial backdrop, the LGA says there is an ongoing surge in demand for council services.

Town halls are being asked to take on larger caseloads providing statutory services in adult and children’s services, and housing homeless families.

All of this leaves less money for day-to-day services such as running libraries or filling potholes.

The size of local government staffing has also shrunk significantly over the last 20 years by 629,000 (or 23% of the directly employed council workforce), while central government staffing has increased by 31%.

The LGA has called on the chancellor to tackle this “funding crisis” and says it is working hard to try and bring money back into local government.

Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s resources board, said: “Losing a further £1.3billion of central government funding at this time is going to tip many councils over the edge.

“Many local authorities will reach the point where they only have the funds to provide statutory responsibilities and it will be our local communities and economies who will suffer the consequences.

“In his Spring Statement last March, the Chancellor said he would invest in public services if public finances improve as recent forecasts have suggested. It is therefore vital that the government addresses the growing funding gaps facing councils in 2019/20 in the Autumn Budget.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/council-leaders-spending-budgets_uk_5c503229e4b0f43e410acaa1?guccounter=1

Bankrupt Tory council gets special treatment and audit bill balloons

Owl wonders how it would have been treated if it had not been a Tory council …

Its audit bill has ballooned:

“In its final audit report released this week, auditor KPMG said delays have been caused by the slow and patchy provision of information by the council and departures of key staff at the authority.

The extra work caused by the delays would more than quadruple its original fee of £71,250, it said.

The report said: “We stated during the audit committee on 26 November 2018 that this had now risen, at that date, to approximately £300,000 in total (i.e. including original scale fee).”

http://www.room151.co.uk/funding/delays-cause-northampton-audit-bill-to-balloon/

and

It is being allowed to raise an extra 2% on council tax without the (legal) need to hold a referendum:

“The council had already proposed raising council tax by 2.99%, the maximum amount it could do before holding a local vote.

The final settlement stated: “For 2019-20, the relevant basic amount of council tax of Northamptonshire County Council is excessive if the authority’s relevant basic amount of council tax for 2019-20 is 5% or more than 5% greater than its relevant basic amount of council tax for 2018-19”. …

When classified as “excessive”, a local authority must hold a referendum on its proposed tax hike.

In November, in a bending of the rules by the government, Northamptonshire was given permission to use £70m of capital receipts to help balance its budget.

The final statement otherwise largely confirmed what was contained in the earlier provisional settlement in December, with core spending power rising by 2.8% in cash terms from £45.1bn in 2018-19 to £46.4bn in 2019-20.

In real terms this is almost a freeze.”

http://www.room151.co.uk/funding/northamptonshire-thrown-a-lifeline-again/

Auditors: what are they FOR?

EDDC’s auditors say they aren’t there to detect fraud:

“The former auditor of the collapsed cake chain Patisserie Valerie has argued that it is not the role of accountants to uncover fraud.

Grant Thornton is under investigation for its audits of the chain that collapsed into administration earlier this month following the discovery of a £40m black hole in its accounts. Patisserie Valerie’s former finance director has been arrested on suspicion of fraud.

David Dunckley, chief executive of Grant Thornton, which was replaced by RSM as the chain’s auditor in mid-January, told MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that there was an “expectation gap” that “needs to be fixed”.

“We’re not looking for fraud, we’re not looking at the future, we’re not giving a statement that the accounts are correct,” he said, adding that his firm audits 7,000 companies. “We are saying [the accounts are] reasonable, we are looking in the past and we are not set up to look for fraud.”

In a heated exchange with Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP and committee chair, Dunckley reiterated: “If people are colluding and there is a sophisticated fraud that may not be caught by normal audit procedures.”

He said in an ideal world it would be spotted. Reeves replied: “But in a shop that sells tea and cakes, you’d sort of think that might be spotted. It’s not a multinational complex organisation. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/30/ex-patisserie-valerie-auditor-says-not-his-role-to-uncover

and it seems, even when they DO detect major fraud, they don’t seem to feel obliged to do anything about it:

“Deloitte has been fined 2.2m ringgitt (£415,000) by Malaysian regulators for failures in its audit of a firm linked to the scandal-ridden state fund, 1MDB.

The Securities Commission Malaysia said Deloitte was reprimanded because it failed to report the irregularities detected in the Sukuk Murabahah Programme, an Islamic bond issued by Bandar Malaysia Sdn Bhd (BMSB).

Deloitte was the statutory auditor for BMSB and its holding company 1Malaysia Development Berhad Real Estate (a subsidiary of state fund 1MDB) for the financial years ending March 2015 and 2016 when the bonds were issued.

The securities regulator said Deloitte’s failure to immediately report irregularities may have a material effect on the ability of BMSB to fulfil its obligations in repaying sukuk holders any amount under the programme.

Imposing a fine of 2.2m ringgit , the regulator said it “finds the breaches committed by Deloitte serious in nature as it has failed to discharge its statutory obligations”.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/30/deloitte-fined-by-malaysia-over-breach-linked-to-1mdb

Auditers warned about council manipulation of funds for commercial ventures

“Auditors have been encouraged to scrutinise council accounts to ensure that balance sheets are not being manipulated in order to justify commercial ventures.

The National Audit Office has released a new guidance note for local government auditors, covering a range of issues thrown up by recent changes in regulation and council practice.

The section on commercialisation has been produced in response to the growth in council commercial activity as a means of dealing with substantial funding reductions, the note said.

“Auditors should be mindful of any incentives to achieve a particular balance sheet position that arise from an authority’s commercial activities when planning their audit work,” the note said.

The note also brought auditors’ attention to the changing nature of investment activity, primarily in commercial property, carried out through asset-backed joint-venture arrangements, rather than traditional debt-backed approaches.

It said: “The scale and nature of authorities’ commercial activity brings both risks to the auditor’s value for money arrangements conclusion and the opinion on the financial statements.

“The former covers the reasonableness of decision making, including the relevant risk assessment, appropriate skills of the authority and the appropriateness of advice.”

Councils need to consider the impact of commercial ventures both on the accounts of any standalone entities, as well as the group accounts, it said.

The note also warned councils that the general power of competence, introduced in the Localism Act 2011, does not give them unlimited powers over their decisions relating to commercial ventures.

It said: “Auditors in considering their value for money arrangements conclusion will need to assure themselves that schemes have been entered into following appropriate legal and financial advice, having regard to Wednesbury principles of reasonableness.

“While the general power of competence has made it easier for authorities to undertake commercial activity, this power does not override the need for authorities to comply where there is already an existing legal duty, for example, compliance with the capital financing regulations.”

Elsewhere,the NAO note encourages auditors to ensure that councils are complying with rules allowing councils to use certain capital receipts on revenue funding.

“With pressure to find revenue funding authorities may incorrectly apply the guidance to apply capital receipts for a revenue purpose contrary to the requirements of the capital financing regulations,” the NAO said.

In March last year, auditor KPMG warned that warned that plans by Northamptonshire County Council to spend £40.9m in capital receipts on transformation projects were “not on any view achievable”.

Auditors,the NAO said, should determine whether councils have complied with the capital receipts flexibility guidance, and review the “reasonableness and realism” of councils’ assumptions.

“Auditors should be alert to the risk that authorities may misapply the flexibility to convert ineligible capital receipts to support their general fund expenditure,” it said.

The NAO note also reiterated the role of the auditor in cases where councils might decide to issue a section 114 notice.

In situations where a section 114 notice could be issued, auditors should seek discussions with the NAO and “engage with the section 151 officer regarding consequent courses of action should the section 151 officer’s actions not be successful in averting an unbalanced budget.”

Stephen Sheen, managing director of local government finance consultancy Ichabod’s Industries, said: “Auditors are required to have regard to the guidance when planning and carrying out their audits.

“This doesn’t mean that they have to agree with it, but they must have considered it in arriving at any position that they take on the relevant issues.”

http://www.room151.co.uk/funding/nao-urges-close-watch-on-commercialisation/

“Spending watchdog urges ministry to address weaknesses in local authority governance”

“The National Audit Office has sounded the alarm about local authority governance and audit for the second time in a week.

In its latest report, Local Authority Governance, the spending watchdog said the government should improve its oversight of the local governance system in the face of increasing financial pressures on councils.

It said councils’ responses to these pressures had “tested local governance arrangements”, as some had pursued large-scale transformations or potentially risky commercial investments that added complexity to governance arrangements.

But spending to support governance fell by 34% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

The NAO said external auditors issued qualified conclusions for around 20% of unitary and county councils, and “several authorities did not take appropriate steps to address these issues”.

A NAO survey of auditors found 27% did not agree that their authority’s audit committees provided sufficient assurance about governance arrangements.

Some councils had questioned the contribution of external audit to providing assurance on their governance arrangements, with 51% of chief finance officers wanting to see changes, including a greater focus on the value for money element of the audit.

The NAO said the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) did not systematically collect data on governance, and so it could not assess whether issues that arose were isolated incidents or symptomatic of failings in aspects of the system.

Ministry intervention at councils was not always made public “meaning its scale and effectiveness is not open to scrutiny or challenge”, the watchdog said.

The report’s recommendations include that the MHCLG should work with local authorities and stakeholders to assess the implications of, and possible responses to, the various governance issues it had Identified.

This would include examining the status of section 151 officers and the efficacy of their statutory reporting arrangements, the effectiveness of audit committees, the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny functions, and the sustainability and future role of internal audit. …”

http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php

Many local authorities not providing value for money

“The number of public bodies in England failing to provide value for money is “unacceptably high” and increasing, the public spending watchdog has warned.

Of the nearly 1,000 councils, police, fire and NHS bodies across England, 208 (22%) were found to have “significant weaknesses” in securing value for money in 2017-18, a National Audit Office report out today revealed.

This was higher than the 170 (18%) of public bodies awarded a ‘qualified’ audit conclusion – signifying the significant weaknesses – in 2015-16.

“This increase varies between local government and NHS sectors”, the report found – with NHS bodies seemingly faring worse than other public bodies….

Financial performance issues that can lead to a qualified conclusion, include failure to meet financial targets, such as annual spending limits or delivering planned savings.

The NAO report said: “Qualified conclusions on arrangements to secure value for money locally are both unacceptably high and increasing.”

It continued: “The proportion of local public bodies whose plans for keeping spending within budget are not fit-for-purpose, or who have significant weaknesses in their governance, is too high. This is a risk to public money and undermines confidence in how well local services are managed.” …

The report also suggested that a large proportion of local bodies may not fully understand the purpose of an auditor’s conclusion on arrangements to secure value for money.

Of 61 local public bodies that responded to the NAO, 82% said auditors identified issues they were already aware of, but the NAO stressed that the auditor’s report is to provide public assurance on the adequacy of arrangements in place, not to uncover new issues.

While 95% of respondents said they had plans in place to address issues in the auditor’s report, only 5% said had already dealt with their auditor’s concerns.

Rob Whiteman, CIPFA chief executive, said: “Value for money conclusions should be treated as a cornerstone on which local bodies can show their dedication to transparency and accountability, crucial aspects of good governance in the public sector.

“Local auditors, councillors and directors should exercise their powers to hold executives to account, especially where local bodies are not taking sufficient action to address issues raised.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “It is deeply concerning that local auditors are raising increasing numbers of concerns about local bodies’ arrangements to secure value for money, but these are often not being listened to and there is no consequence for the local bodies themselves.

“With ever stretched public services, citizens deserve to know that there are effective arrangements in place to make sure they are getting value for money.

“Local auditors should be using the full range of their powers and local bodies should be acting on their findings transparently, with departments holding them to account.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2019/01/more-public-bodies-failing-provide-value-money-says-nao