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Anodyne report published on governance of EDDC councillors

Tuesday, 05 November 2013 5 Comments by Claire

The long-awaited previously confidential report by EDDC’s internal auditors on governance of councillors has been published today, after a refusal to make it public under the freedom of information act last month.

Part of the reason it was so sought after, was because it assessed whether adequate systems were in place to counteract any possibility of bribery and corruption - an issue of considerable public interest currently.

EDDC has now published the report with next week’s audit and governance agenda papers because myself and Cllr Roger Giles argued hard for it be made public at the last audit and governance meeting in September.  See details of discussions at that meeting here - http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/confidential_audit_report_on_graham_brown_to_be_published/

Given its scope and the events of March this year, which saw ex councillor Graham Brown sensationally exposed by undercover Daily Telegraph reporters, you might think that the report would be in-depth analysing deeply the systems, with a view to making meaningful recommendations.  But actually, it is remarkably anodyne, draws simplistic conclusions and makes some very strange connections indeed.

Here’s a key paragraph from the audit report
“During the course of this year the activities of one Councillor was drawn to senior management’s attention by an outside source. The Council took appropriate action in relation to this matter and the
Councillor has now resigned.

This review included a review of Councillor’s declared interests and of the complaints procedures. Internal Audit can confirm the Council holds a complete set of Councillor’s declared interests; it can demonstrate exempt and sensitive information is well managed; and a robust complaints procedure is in operation.”

We are told as members that it is down to us to be honest and comply with the code of conduct. This is reasonable because officers cannot go checking the land registry on the offchance we might own more land than we are declaring, nor can they check our bank accounts.

The council relies on councillors to be honest and open.  Instead there might be a question about what checks and balances are employed when there is reasonable suspicion that a councillor is not declaring all their interests.

The report goes on to make points about ensuring that participants at meetings are clearly defined on agendas.

Most bizarrely, the risk relating to the risk of the possibility of “using their position unfairly for personal gain” is thought could be remedied by a personal development review, offered annually to councillors!

The key controls recommended by internal auditors are:

? The Council comply fully with their statutory responsibilities, including the Constitution .

? The Council have a suitable Officer (Democratic Services) who ensures the Council adheres to the latest statutory requirements.

? A register is maintained of all associated decision making forums and is subject to scrutiny.

? All Decision Making Groups, including outside bodies, have clear Terms of Reference.

? All Councillors receive clear guidance and training on their roles and responsibilities in decision making, including a Code of Conduct.

? All personal interests of Councillors are declared and the responsibilities and decisions they make reflect this.

? Transparency of Council meetings is maintained.

? A robust complaints procedure is in place

Considering that there is a police investigation ongoing into the fallout of that Daily Telegraph expose of 11 March, which also names an officer of the council, the report is remarkably lightweight and takes much for granted.  It does not ask pertinent questions designed at catching potential problems. Rather it seems to make assumptions (sometimes strange assumptions) and draws simplistic conclusions.

The agenda (below) for EDDC’s next audit and governance meeting on Thursday 14 November, starts at 2pm and will be held in the council chamber.  There will be 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting for members of the public to ask questions.

http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/combined_agenda_141113.pdf  - see page 24 for the start of the internal audit report.

Comments

1. At 10:54 am on 06th Nov Sandra Semple wrote:

I sure hope EDDC (i.e. you and me) didn’t pay the auditors extra for that report!  It was not worth the minimal effort made.

2. At 06:55 pm on 06th Nov Tim wrote:

I can just imagine that a councillor who might have been inclined to use his or her position for illicit personal gain would have a moment of enlightenment if offered a personal development review!  That such a suggestion is made shows that EDDC is either naive, party politically biased and/or plain incompetent.

EDDC accepts it relies exclusively on councillors being honest- see https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/notification_of_councillors_fina#outgoing-263632  for confirmation.

Having looked at most declarations of local councillors it is quite clear they are not all receiving appropriate guidance and advice as to what should be declared. We don’t need them to say that they have RAC membership but we do need them to declare what directorships they hold.

I am quite sure the greater majority are honest people but the fact is that whilst some were shocked at certain recent developments, many others said they had long held such suspicions.

What EDDC does not provide is a procedure where concerns can be raised, by councillors and the public, where such concerns will be addressed by a competent, impartial and above all, trusted investigation process.

We have heard of recent investigations where the investigator has refused to speak to some witnesses - that cannot be right. We also wonder what investigative skills those appointed to such tasks have.

That there is little or no trust in the present system, which has all the appearances of political bias, should have been properly addressed by the auditor. SWAP is itself not truly independent but made up of members of local councils and may have senior EDDC staff on its board. Some may think it lacks true independence.(http://www.southwestaudit.co.uk)

Did it not occur to SWAP that declared interests can be vastly different to declarable interests? It seems not.

And here is something else to think about. Should council staff be obliged to declare potential conflicts of interest - such as having previously worked for a company that is seeking to be awarded an EDDC contract?

3. At 09:37 pm on 06th Nov Conrad Black wrote:

Any system that relies solely on the absolute honesty of people in positions of power is fundamentally flawed.  Of one thing we may be certain - that the dishonest will be dishonest.

The work of the auditors is deeply disappointing because it fails to be robust.  You cannot test a single instance of a measure to find out if it is working.  No auditor in the country would sign off accounts on the basis of one single check!  Let us say, for instance, that they were to test if/when membership of the EDBF, clearly a lobbying forum, was declared as against when membership occurred, and for which councillors and officers.

Suppose that they were to find that councillors had ‘forgotten’ to point out their membership, or not not considered it necessary, and what would they say about permanent staff in that position?  Would they examine all the decisions made before a declaration was made, and bring that to the attention of who exactly?

Clearly that would be an issue of conflict of interest, and it would have to be addressed by an authority that was not political and not council staff.  So exactly what would be/is the mechanism?

In my view, the system proposed is both deeply flawed and inadequate.  It is deeply flawed because there is no mechanism for dealing with deliberate failure to disclose.  And it is inadequate because it clearly failed to allow the detection of a councillor who had not been entirely open and clearly intended to profit from his position (as demonstrated by the Telegraph).

So far from working well, the system is badly broken and in need of fixing.

I wonder what the terms of reference actually were for the auditor’s report?

4. At 11:42 am on 07th Nov Graham wrote:

Always supporting development, he was the Chair of the DMC Planning Committee and a regular attendee of the Local Plan panel meetings. Although he was a founder member promoting the lobby group chaired by ex Cllr Brown, over the years the councillor avoided making any reference of his involvement with the East Devon Business Forum in the EDDC members Register of Interest Form. This consistent disregard and failure to declare an interest until last year, clearly conflicted with the EDDC code of practice. It is very revealing how complacent EDDC’s Governance procedures were when it came to the behaviour of their council leader.

5. At 02:18 pm on 07th Nov Jessica Bailey wrote:

The register at Companies House shows which senior officer at EDDC sits on the board of SWAP. Presumably each local authority which owns/runs SWAP has a director sitting on the board. I would be really interested for someone from SWAP to explain (a) how the public can sure that SWAP carries out sufficiently robust audits when senior officers from the local authorities its auditing sit on its board. In the private sector I doubt a director of a company which is being audited would also be permitted to work for the accountancy firm which is carrying out the audit.

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