Standing up to scrutiny

Not only are we democratically elected in our own right, which brings with it the regular scrutiny of the ballot box, but we are subject to a whole range of other internal and external checks and balances.

Two recent reports by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, have dwelt upon the quality of local governance and audit. Both show that, despite significant reductions in government funding, councils continue to provide high standards of governance.

In a report on the outcomes of the 2017/18 local audit, councils compare very favourably with NHS bodies. In all, 8 per cent of local government bodies have had some kind of qualification in their value for money arrangements, about the same as the previous year. The figure for the NHS is 38 per cent, up from 29 per cent in 2015/16.

The NAO’s companion report on local council governance also reflects a system that is still working. A sizeable majority of auditors are satisfied that councils have adequate arrangements in place. For example, 83 per cent agree that councils have robust risk management overall.

The NAO also surveyed council chief finance officers and discovered that 98 per cent agree or strongly agree that they are able to give challenging advice to elected members.

This does not mean that we can rest on our laurels. Where councils have qualified conclusions, they need to act, and all of us need to make sure that we are taking on board the recommendations of our local external auditors if problems are to be nipped in the bud.

The NAO has recommended that central government should collect more information from councils on their governance arrangements. This hardly seems necessary given that external auditors are providing oversight at local level and Public Sector Audit Appointments (PSAA) is supervising the audit contracts and collecting and reporting information on how councils are doing.

With the levels of revenue support grant (RSG) councils receive from government dwindling away, and with 168 councils due to receive no RSG at all in 2019/20, we might even question whether the Government has any right to scrutinise our finances.

Faced with an overall funding gap that will reach £8 billion by 2025, councils in England are increasingly having to make difficult decisions about how to manage their resources, and look for new ways to reduce costs and generate income. It is, therefore, vital that our governance arrangements remain transparent and stand up to scrutiny.

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