Information Commissioner wants Freedom of Information Act extended to outsourced companies

“The Information Commissioner has called for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) to be updated to include organisations providing a public function.

In a report to Parliament, ‘Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law’, Elizabeth Denham said: “In the modern age, public services are delivered in many ways by many organisations. Yet not all of these organisations are subject to access to information laws.

“Maintaining accountable and transparent services is a challenge because the current regime does not always extend beyond public authorities and, when it does, it is complicated. The laws are no longer fit for purpose.”

She added: “Urgent action is required because progress has been too slow. It is now time to act. This report sets out solutions that can extend the law to make it fit for the modern age.”

Denham said the main aim her report was to make an evidence-based case to extend the reach of FOIA and the EIR “to enable greater transparency and accountability in modern public services, which in turn improves services”.
The Commissioner said in the report that she would welcome a Parliamentary Inquiry via a select committee into the issues raised. The ICO has submitted the report to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and PACAC for their consideration. …”

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

Councils relied too much on informal cabinet briefings: contract legality now being probed

“A CATALOGUE of errors detailing how two district councils were run have been exposed in a ‘gobsmacking’ report.

Initial findings from an investigation into contracts signed by Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire district councils between 2010 to 2016 show councillors’ knowledge was stymied by a ‘lack of information’.

The two councils are conducting reviews into several contracts after fears were raised last year that contracts could have been handed out improperly.

All of them have a value of or more than £10,000. Between the two councils, there are 162 of those in total.

A report also highlights there was an ‘over reliance’ on briefing cabinet members informally, rather than decisions being made at public cabinet or council meetings.

‘A lack of detail’ was also found to be a problem in papers for those cabinet briefings and at cabinet meetings.

The review also found there was ‘poor procedural compliance by officers and members, most notably in documenting decision making’.

Debby Hallett, Lib Dem councillor on Vale council and former group leader, said the ‘gobsmacking’ papers seemed to indicate a ‘culture of sloppiness and shortcuts’ over key contracts.

But she added: “The thing that surprised me is [the councils] have promised to have this done by March, which is putting this in the public domain before the local elections [in May].”

That, she said, showed the councils’ willingness to conduct the reviews in a spirit of ‘transparency and integrity’.

Adrianna Partridge, the councils’ head of corporate service, notes in the report: “This review has identified a significant risk that the councils have incurred expenditure that has not been adequately approved in accordance with the councils’ constitutions, which could have both financial and reputational risk.”

In the report which will go to the councils’ joint audit and governance committee on Monday, she states: “Action has already been taken to address and strengthen the decision making process on individual projects, and it is acknowledge that a greater transparency is needed, including an increase in the number of formal papers taken to cabinet and full council which the senior management team is enforcing.”

The councils have set aside a budget of £30,000 for legal advice if they need to take any action over contracts in the future.

Confidential papers will be discussed next week.

They are understood to refer to specific details of the councils’ eight to 10 contracts which are being reviewed.

https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/17377868.gobsmacking-errors-in-how-oxfordshire-councils-awarded-contracts/

Are DCC councillors refusing to let Claire Wright’s star shine before local elections?

Owl says:

Local council elections: 2 May 2019

Greater Exeter Strategic plan:
not going out for consultation until June 2019

Claire Wright’s long-promised inquiry into how Devon carers are coping:
Delayed by at least a year to June 2019 at the earliest

Anyone smell rats (on a sinking ship)?

“My efforts to get a spotlight review into how Devon carers are faring seems to have hit another delay.

I first proposed a review at the April Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee meeting of last year, but the vote was delayed until councillors had visited the contractors who look after the service, Westbank League of Friends.

My interest in the subject was sparked after reading a report which indicated that many carers were feeling exhausted, ill and short of money. Here is the background –

http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/scrutiny_review_to_take_place_into_how_devon_carers_are_coping

After a useful meeting at Westbank, I duly proposed a spotlight review once again at the September meeting. It was agreed this time.

I have now enquired twice when this review is going to have its first meeting but have had unsatisfactory answers.

At yesterday’s committee meeting I asked again when the first meeting was going to take place.

I was told that it wouldn’t take place until at least June as more information was needed.

I pointed out that this was almost a year after I had proposed the review (actually it is longer as I originally proposed it last April but it was not agreed then).

But the chair said the information was required before a spotlight review was held.

This is deeply disappointing and feels as though the issue is being kicked into the long grass.

I know many carers out there are struggling and to defer this issue is unfair and wrong in my view.

I will definitely be pursuing this.”

http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/review_into_how_devon_carers_are_faring_delayed_until_after_june

Knowle Flog It: statement raises more questions than answers

An “explanation” of the Knowle Flog It fiasco appears in today’s Sidmouth Herald. It appears to be printed verbatim from a council statement.

Owl wonders why this statement was printed without challenging some of its very, very vague claims – one hesitates to use the word ‘facts’. “Journalism”? Not as Owl knows it!

Guess some answers MIGHT come from the Freedom of Information request by an Exmouth resident on 8 January 2019:
https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/01/10/the-knowle-flog-it-scandal-rumbles-on/

In the meantime:

Amongst Owl’s questions:

It seems Councillor Skinner paid £400 for the table he wanted so urgently – earlier reports mentioned it being valued at a very low price, much lower than £400. Which is correct? And including just how many chairs?

Who decided on the “three disposal methods? It does not appear to be the Asset Management Group.

Which councillors have bought items? Have they declared these on their Registers of Interest?

Which groups were offered ‘free’ items, how were they chosen and by whom? Have any of these groups taken items – and if so, which groups and how much did they pay for them?

What exactly is the Chairman’s Civic Fund and how and when has it been used recently and in the past? What are its rules? Who oversees the disbursements?

Which local groups and charities will be able to bid for what is left after officers and councillors have taken their pick? How have they been chosen and by whom?

Are internal and external auditors happy with the procedures?

Will the Scrutiny Committee be scrutinising these actions?

Owl is sure readers have many more questions!

Chilling report on NHS sustainability – it isn’t sustainable

Owl says: anyone who cares about the NHS should read EVERY PAGE of this 58-page report, which is written in clear and accessible language.

Every page signals a death-knell for the NHS sooner rather than later.

It is hard to pick out anything – every page tells a story of (deliberate?) mismanagement, underfunding and chaotic accounting.

For example:

“Key findings

The funding settlement for the NHS long-term plan

8 The long-term funding settlement does not cover key areas of health spending. The 3.4% average uplift in funding applies to the budget for NHS England and not to the Department’s entire budget. The Department’s budget covers other important areas of health spending such as most capital investment for buildings and equipment, prevention initiatives run by Public Health England and local authorities, and funding for doctors’ and nurses’ training. Spending in these areas could affect the NHS’s ability to deliver the priorities of the long-term plan, especially if funding for these areas reduces. The government will consider proposals in these areas as part of its 2019 Spending Review. In addition, without a long-term funding settlement for social care, local NHS bodies are concerned that it will be very difficult to make the NHS sustainable (paragraphs 2.27 and 2.28).

9 There is a risk that the NHS will be unable to use the extra funding optimally because of staff shortages. Difficulties in recruiting NHS staff presents a real risk that some of the extra £20.5 billion funding will either not be used optimally (more expensive agency staff will need to be used to deliver additional services) or will go unspent as even if commissioners have the resources to commission additional activity, health care providers may not have the staff to deliver it (paragraphs 1.19 and 2.29).

10 From what we have seen so far, the NHS long-term plan sets out a prudent approach to achieving the priorities and tests set by the government, but a number of risks remain. The long-term plan describes how the NHS aims to achieve the range of priorities and five financial tests, set by the government in return for the long-term funding settlement, which NHS England believes are stretching but feasible. As with all long-term plans, it provides a helpful indicator of the direction of travel, but significant internal and external risks remain to making the plan happen. These risks include: growing pressures on services; staffing shortages; funding for social care and public health; and the strength of the economy. Our reports have highlighted how previous funding boosts appear to have mostly been spent on dealing with current pressures rather than making the changes that are needed to put the NHS on a sustainable footing (paragraphs 2.24 to 2.26).

Financial and operational performance of NHS bodies

11 In 2017-18, NHS commissioners and trusts reported a combined deficit of £21 million. This was made up of:

The combined deficit of £21 million does not include adjustments needed to report against the Department’s budget for day-to-day resources and administration costs.

12 It is not clear that funding is reaching the right parts of the system.
The overspends by trusts and CCGs were broadly offset by the underspend by NHS England. In 2017-18, NHS England’s underspend included: £962 million from non-recurrent central programme costs, including efficiencies from vacancies;

a £280 million contribution to the risk reserve and £223 million from centrally commissioned services, mostly specialised services (paragraphs 1.4 and 1.8).

13 Most of the combined trust deficit is accounted for by a small number of trusts, while the number of CCGs in deficit increased in 2017-18. The net trust deficit hides wide variation in performance between trusts, with 100 out of 232 trusts in deficit. In 2017-18, 69% of the total trust deficit was accounted for by 10 trusts. NHS Improvement has committed to returning the trust sector to balance in 2020-21, but it is difficult to see how this will be achieved for the worst-performing trusts under current arrangements. Although support provided to trusts in NHS Improvement’s financial special measures programme has been successful in improving the position of some trusts (by £49 million in 2017-18), the financial performance of the 10 worst-performing trusts deteriorated significantly in 2017-18. Between 2016-17 and 2017-18, the number of CCGs reporting overspends against their planned position increased from 57 to 75. The NHS long-term plan sets out the national bodies’ aim that no NHS organisation is reporting a deficit by 2023-24 (paragraphs 1.6 and 1.11).

14 There are indications that the underlying financial health in some trusts
is getting worse. In 2017-18, trusts reported that their combined underlying deficit was £4.3 billion, or £1.85 billion if the Provider Sustainability Fund (which replaced the Sustainability and Transformation Fund in 2018-19) is allocated to trusts in future years. There is no historical data on the underlying deficit that takes account of one-off savings, emergency extra cash and other short-term fixes that boost the financial position of the NHS, so it is not clear whether this position is getting better or worse. However, indicators such as cash support and one-off efficiency savings suggest the position has not improved. For example, in 2017-18, the Department gave £3.2 billion in loans to support trusts in difficulty, up from £2.8 billion in 2016-17. In 2017-18, 26% of trusts’ savings were one-off. Trusts will need to make additional savings in 2018-19 to replace these one-off savings (paragraphs 1.13, 1.14, 2.13, 2.17 and 2.18).”

https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/NHS-financial-sustainability_.pdf

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