Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Friday's Audit Committee (aside from the elephants)

The council's Audit Committee meets on Friday and the rather dry looking agenda hides the fact that there are serious issues on the cards. Not least of all the letter from the lay member of that very committee, Sir David Lewis to the WLGA governance review panel in which he described the governance of the council as "in disarray and not fit for purpose" and the internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The statement of accounts has again been marred by the chief executive's pension and libel indemnity scandals (incurring an audit fee of £51k) and furthermore, the accounts will not be finally signed off by the Appointed Auditor until 'enquiries arising from matters raised by members of the public have been formally completed'.

One of those enquiries concerns the peculiar deal between the council and the Scarlets over the sale of a car park. We also know, from press reports, that work is still ongoing in relation to Meryl's millions.

So, aside from various elephants in the room, the Wales Audit Office have again raised general concern over the council's grant management procedures. There have been some improvements but the council still falls well below the Wales average in terms of the numbers of audited grants which need qualifying and amending. The findings of the WAO include ineligible expenditure, a lack of audit trail/insufficient evidence to support transactions and infringement of procurement rules.

A sample of grant claims which are not subject to external audit were also looked at and the WAO concluded that there were "weaknesses within the Council’s grants management arrangements which increases the risk of poor decision-making and inappropriate expenditure".

In conclusion, I would imagine if this was a school report it would say 'could do better' or maybe even, 'see me'...

There are also, interestingly, a couple of reports from the council's own internal audit review programme which show 'fundamental weaknesses', One concerns claims for travel and subsistence, and another relates to homecare (domiciliary) payments.

The council paid out over £2.4m last year in travel and subsistence (meals) to staff. It appears from the internal report that claims and reimbursement are not always compliant with the current travel policy, and agreed procedures not always followed. Quite how this problem has manifested itself in detail remains unknown but clearly there is something of an issue.

The homecare payments (over £17m last year) report, is even more worrying as there appears to be a difference of opinion between the council's internal auditors and their own department of social care as to how payments, which are largely to private healthcare providers, are monitored and whether the elderly and vulnerable at the receiving end are actually getting the hours that the providers are under contract to deliver.

The council's internal auditors recommended and assumed that the electronic 'call logging system' was used to check on staff attendance and therefore the actual time spent delivering care in the home, and therefore the subsequent payment to the care provider.
The Social Care department took a different view in that the call logging system should not be used to check that payments were appropriate to the hours worked.

The internal audit issued a report finding 'significant variances' between the contracted and invoiced hours, and the start and finish times recorded on the “call logging system”. This gave rise to "serious concern from both a care and financial perspective".

In light of this internal audit, the social care department then conducted its own 'review' and decided that the concerns flagged up by the internal audit report were 'not borne out' by their own experience and feedback.

However, out of this confused internal stand-off, the audit report recommended that a "complete review of the internal Homecare contract monitoring arrangements should be undertaken" to ensure "the proper use of Electronic Call Monitoring Systems ... to ensure care is delivered as expected and payments made are accurate."
I should think so to.

Finally, the decision record for one of Meryl's meetings was published today and included in the list of grants from the Mynydd y Betws Community Benefit Fund (wind turbine) was a couple of grand for the Llandybie Male Voice Choir.

The footnote to this grant was that it was 'Subject to the proviso that the piano will be returned to the Authority should the choir fold'. Will Meryl be looking out with anticipation for the demise of the choir and hauling the piano back to county hall for an executive board sing-song?
I wonder if other grants include such provisos?


Update 21:49 
Plaid Cymru Councillor Darren Price has commented briefly today on the £27,000 paid to Mr Tim Kerr QC for legal advice over the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments paid to Mr James. 

You may remember leader Kevin Madge (Lab) announced the figure in response to Cllr Price's 'councillor question' at the last council meeting. 

Cllr Price points out today that 'Meanwhile, Labour county councillors are threatening to take to court pensioners who put out their rubbish bins too early'

There's something very wrong somewhere. The Statement of Accounts referred to above confirms that Mr James' salary for 2013/14 was £180,889 plus the indemnity payment.

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