Cambridge City Council’s Civic Affairs Committee met on the 24th of June 2009. The committee is the council’s audit committee, they were reviewing the council’s accounts and audit reports. Often at a council meeting one word will be picked on and over-used by all the officers and councillors. At the Civic Affairs meeting considering the folk festival report this word was “escalation”, as councillors criticised both the lack of speedy escalation of the problem, and the “management by escalation” approach to running the council. At last week’s meeting “outturn” was the word of the day, as councillors compared “outturn” with budgets which had been set at various points in the past; “outturn” being the amount of money the council had actually spent. A quick Google suggests use of the term is largely limited to local government in the UK.
The committee approved the annual statement of accounts pre-audit; the auditors are about to spend nine weeks with the council, starting on the 29th of June. I didn’t catch if the council’s internal head of audit described this as an “extensive” or an “expensive” process; it is both with the external audit costing £155,000 in 2008/9. That is on top of the council’s own internal audit team, which grammar fiends reading this will be amused to note includes a “Principle Auditor“, that said the audit does go much further than simply verifying the council’s accounts are a true and fair reflection of what has gone on. They also look into service provision, and assess how well the council is performing there. The wording of the report describes problem areas with terms such as “limited assurance” and “no assurance”, with both being unacceptable.
Problems noted included environmental improvement grants, which the council are notoriously slow at spending, this area has moved from “no assurance” to “limited…” The problems here are clearly on-going as can be seen from the penny ferry car park fiasco. The report notes: “Progress still needs to be made with the development of officer/Member procedures and overall project management”. One problem I see is that this is an area with heavy involvement from councillors, and if people have not elected competent councillors then projects they are charged with “leading” are going to run into problems.
The two areas to have a “no assurance” rating in 2008-9 were the folk festival procurement procedures; where problems were not just limited to the online ticket sales and the system used by council officers for providing reports on properties for potential purchasers. In the latter case the problem was an inefficient internal system which made it much more costly and time consuming for council officers to produce the requested reports; though there was no problem with the quality of the information supplied.
Other Notable Points
- The minutes of the Civic Affairs committee meeting which received a report from the internal auditor into the Folk Festival were not entirely approved. Cllr Herbert noted that these minutes had gone way beyond simply recording the decisions made, and had recorded elements of the discussion. They did not though, obviously, record all four hours of what was said. Not wanting to exhaustively go though all the omissions the meeting agreed to allow the chair to sign the minutes as a “reasonable representation” record, rather than “true and accurate” which is apparently the wording usually used. Whatever wording is used it doesn’t make the online copy of the minutes – so quite who ever gets to see it is a bit of a mystery.
- No professional members of the press attended the meeting.
- At the beginning of the meeting I asked a question about when the police were called in to investigate the loss of around £650,000 of the council’s money following the failure of the company contracted to sell folk festival tickets online in 2008.
- The council’s new Chief Executive (and Cllr Dryden) were absent, both were reported to be at the Midsummer Fair. Councillors commented on the fact that the new Chief Executive was not wearing the town clerk’s ceremonial dress, which her predecessor had done on such occasions.
- Councillors asked that details of limited and non-assurance audits to be passed to opposition councillors. Cllr Pitt asked if they could be obtained by someone making a Freedom of Information request. Officers present said that that decision would not be up to them, but would be referred to the monitoring officer; they said they expected the answer would be that redaction of officer names and job titles would be required. Officers did say though that they hoped to be able to make the reports available online to councillors. Cllr Boyce said that summary information was included in the council’s internal newsletter, which he said was now available electronically and was posted on the council’s website as well as being sent to all councillors (I have not been able to find it).
- Cllr Ward expressed his happiness and surprise that officers had responded to his calls for improving their staff whistleblowing policy, and it was due for a review and re-launch. He was told there had been four whistleblowers in 2008/9, three relating to the Folk Festival.
- While discussing the Council’s Code of Corporate Governance, councillors amended it adding a reference to the “RIPA procedure guide”, and a statement on proportionality of spying.
- Cllr Herbert asked about the council’s performance with respect to Freedom of Information. He was pointed to section 4.3 of the Code of Corporate Governance which states: “The Council will make sure members of the public have access to information about the workings of the Council. It will make clear what information is routinely published through its Freedom of Information Publication scheme and will respond promptly to requests for information.” He queried if the council was really being prompt, and was told the average time taken to respond to a request was 10.7 working days. Cllr Ward asked if it would be quicker if people didn’t phrase their requests in such a way as they were classified as FOI requests, so they didn’t incur extra bureaucratic processes. Officers said they did not have the information to answer that question, but thought it might be something which would come up in the annual report on complaints.
- Cllr Boyce asked for minuting of the answers to oral questions at full council, and publication of the written answers. This is something I have been lobbying for.
- Cllr Herbert noted that the Chief Executive’s salary had been revealed by the report, it is over £120,000. The fact the new Chief Executive was to be offered something around that was made clear in the advertisement for the role published in the Guardian. Councillors discussed how this could be justified, with Councillor Ward asking what the council’s turnover was, saying he would like to be able to justify the Chief Executive’s salary to electors in relation to the council’s turnover. Cllr Ward explained the problem he had doing that when you could describe the council’s turnover as being anything from £18 million to £180 million depending on what you included. Officers said one had to read the accounts to understand what was going on, one suggested the income and expenditure account as a good overview. Cllr Ward pointed out that this shows £184 million being spent, but asked if this included about £60 million of depreciation on council houses and £60 million on council tax collected and passed on to other authorities, and was told it did.
- Cllr Pitt asked if the Council had finished collecting Poll Tax, as it was no longer mentioned. Officers said that Poll Tax had been abolished in 1991 and that the balance owed, which had dropped below £600, had been written off. Officers noted the council were still collecting against four accounts where ongoing attachments to earnings were in place, that money was now being added to the general fund.
- There are all sorts of perspectives from which one can look at the council’s accounts for 2008-9. One is that £5.2 m of reserves were expected to be used but only £3.7m were actually used, a significant under use of reserves compared to the original budget. Another, different, viewpoint is given by the statement: “The Council’s actual net revenue spending on services was £1,916,009 above the original budget”. This was offset by reduced capital spending, and increased central government grants, resulting in the final state of affairs being a healthier situation than was budgeted for (depending on how you view the lack of capital expenditure).
- Cllr Herbert commented on the huge amount of detail contained within the full accounts document. He pointed particularly to the pensions section. This shows that the council tax-payer has to make up any shortfall in council officer pensions if the value of the pension fund is insufficient. The value of the pension scheme’s assets has fallen, and if I’ve pulled the right figure out – pensions cost the city an extra £1.7 million in 2008/9, and that’s a line in the accounts quite separate to the pensions contributions for current employees.