Any Urgent Business - Agenda Items Missing
Councillor Jeff Green raised the issue of agenda setting and that he had not been consulted on the agenda.
Shaer Halewood, Director of Finance and Investment, confirmed that she was the accountable officer for this committee and that she would be consulting over the agenda in future with the Chair.
Councillor Jeff Green referred to an item discussed at a recent Planning Committee regarding a judicial review and that it had been agreed that the matter be referred to this Committee.
The Principal Committee Services Officer apologised that the referral had not appeared on the agenda and assured the Committee that it would be on the agenda for the September meeting.
Councillor Jeff Green queried why the annual accounts were not on the agenda for this meeting when they were due to be published by 31 July, 2019.
Shaer Halewood informed the Committee that the Council were legally obliged to publish the accounts by 31 July and that they would be. However, the accounts would not be able to be audited by this date mainly due to a very late recent high court decision on pensions within public sector bodies that had impacted on the preparation of the accounts, in that all pension statements had had to be re-evaluated which meant that the pensions note in the accounts had had to be amended, which had to be agreed with the auditors. This was not an issue specific to Wirral and other local authorities were in the same position. She also referred to new technical adjustments which had had to be made to the accounts relating to IFRS9 which also had to be agreed with Grant Thornton. Capacity issues within the team due to sickness and within Grant Thornton’s team also had an impact.
Councillor Jeff Green also referred to the lack of quarterly financial monitoring reports as these would impact on the budget set by the Council this year.
Shaer Halewood stated that the quarterly monitoring reports were still being compiled and that this usually took between five to six weeks after the close down of accounts. She confirmed that with Cabinet having responsibility for the budget, the monitoring reports were submitted there first.
Responding to comments from Members on staffing resources within the Finance team, she referred to a restructure which the team was currently undergoing and that during this period some vacancies were being held over. The senior officer, who had responsibility for closing off the accounts, who had been off on long term sickness too had returned to work now and she assured the Committee that within the next few months the team would be back to full capacity and these capacity issues would be covered in the future.
A Member commented that at a recent Leaders’ meeting it was mentioned that all political group leaders needed to be kept appraised of the latest financial situation as and when issues with the budget might occur so that measures could be taken in an expeditious manner.
Councillor Jeff Green commented that he would speak to the Leader of the Council as he knew he wanted to work in a more open and transparent manner to see if the previous Leader’s ruling that financial reports had to go to Cabinet before any other Committee still applied and if necessary he could ask Councillor Ian Lewis to raise this at the Leaders’ Group. He also stated that if there were issues which needed to be discussed he would be happy to have additional meetings.
In response to Members’ comments Shaer Halewood confirmed that the role of Cabinet was to manage and monitor the budget and if Cabinet wanted these reports to go to another committee before that that was within their remit. There was now a lot more pre-scrutiny prior to reports going to Cabinet. With regard to monitoring reports going to overview and scrutiny committees, because of the timescales this would now happen in the September cycle of meetings but she would be happy to discuss with the Leader for information to be shared with scrutiny Members over the summer.
Councillor Jeff Green then raised the issue of re-assurance and assurance in that Members were often re-assured that everything was alright through performance indicators and such like but actual assurance was lacking. He referred to the 2017 Ofsted inspection and a more recent session around the planning function in which the Local Government Association had found serious issues. It appeared that the Council was in the position of always having to respond to judgements of poor performance and then react.
Councillor Jeff Green suggested that the Committee should have a table of legal requirements which set out how the Council were complying with these and the Council’s performance and this received agreement from the Committee.
Shaer Halewood confirmed that this was indeed within the Committee’s remit and then sought clarification on whether or not a special meeting of the Committee was to be arranged to look at the accounts. She confirmed that the only formal requirement of the Committee was to sign off the final audited accounts. The accounts had to be published by 31 July, 2019, and they would be subject to audit. There was no legal requirement to publish audited accounts as long as the Council provided a statement to say why they had not been audited.
Shaer Halewood also explained why last year they had been able to come to this Committee in July, and, for all the reasons already explained, why this had not been possible this year. For those reasons also a ‘letter of representation’ had not been able to be produced which would state that all the relevant policies and procedures had been complied with. This would be produced at the September meeting along with the audited accounts unless the Committee requested a special meeting in advance of this.
A Member suggested that provided all legal requirements are complied with the accounts should come back to a meeting in September as traditionally Members and officers took their holidays during the month of August.
Responding to comments on staffing shortages with the Finance Team, Shaer Halewood confirmed that two members of staff had been off sick, one of whom was a very experienced member of staff, very involved in the preparation of the accounts. Two vacancies were also being carried by the team, so 4 out of a team of 40 staff were missing and this combined with the additional volume of transactions and very technical accounting changes had led to the lateness in producing the accounts. She did acknowledge that even with a full complement of staff, because of these issues and the late high court judgement, it was probably unlikely that the accounts would have been signed off. With regard to other authorities she confirmed that some colleagues from other local authorities had informed her that they would not have their accounts available for sign off by 31 July too. With a restructure taking place across the finance teams, more capacity would be in place for more generic working and if members of staff were off sick in future years other officers would be able to pick this work up.
Councillor Jeff Green suggested that when the reports did come to the Committee in September, there should be a report setting out what had been undertaken by the Finance department to ensure that this did not happen again.
In response to a Member’s comment, the representative of the Director of Governance and Assurance informed the Committee that it was at the Chair’s discretion to agree any items of urgent business and that the Committee had felt that these issues were urgent.
Following a lengthy discussion, Shaer Halewood confirmed to the Committee a number of actions which had been agreed, as follows:
· A referral from the Planning Committee on a judicial report to come to the September meeting.
· The Statement of Accounts to come to the September meeting.
· A table to show the legal requirements of the Council and from a governance perspective for the Committee to know whether or not these were being complied with.
· A report to Committee to provide assurance on how the closure of accounts process would be more effective in the future to ensure that the accounts would come to Committee within the timescales next year.