Unity tunes as auditors are damned

Reading Full Council Meeting
28 March 2017

I will try to succinctly sum up this meeting, drawing out any local interest matters to our readers on Katesgrove Hill. All resolutions and motions were accepted unanimously except one. I will start with the most fascinating agenda item.

Agenda item 11 [at 01:13:13] – Audit & Governance Committee. This was the meat of the meeting and the debate lasted 20 minutes. This, one of three motions, and the most interesting was from Ricky Duveen (Lib Dem) asking the Lead Councillors to stand down from the Audit & Governance (A&G) committee as recommended best practice by Ernst & Young in their audit report on the 2015/16 accounts. This would mean that Jo Lovelock, Liz Terry and Tony Page would need to be replaced by other Labour councillors.

Labour’s key argument was that the auditors did not understand the structure of the Council which is a committee not a cabinet structure and that the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) guidance was based on cabinet structure local authorities [ref 4].

This implies incompetence from the auditors in understanding the organisation of the council which is fundamental to their audit. This would be surprising and Ernst & Young are unlikely to own up to an error. Ernst and Young were appointed as auditors last year and appear to have a difficult relationship with RBC finance officers and councillors.

The Conservative position on this motion was compromised because David Stevens who chairs the A&G committee, had previously indicated that he was content with Lead Councillors being on the committee (after all they had appointed him!). That was why Cllr Duveen had decided to bring the matter to a full Council meeting.

Cllr Stevens pointed out that the deputy chairman of the committee, leader of the council Jo Lovelock, could have a conflict of interest if she were to chair the meeting in his absence. Labour agreed to appoint another Tory to be vice chair and the conservatives took this crumb and abstained in the vote.

Josh Williams (Green) pointed out that the CIPFA guidance needed to be read in conjunction with newer briefing notes, something that Tony Page did not appear to have done.

In conclusion, Labour appear for all their control freakery to have dropped the ball and could have dealt with this point with auditors some while ago. The audit report was delivered on 17 November 2016 but this audit committee was not webcast. The excuse that they had more important business to attend to with the auditors will look silly if Ernst & Young stick to their view.

The lesson for the Liberal Democrats and Greens is that they should be on the A&G committee to challenge the financial governance of RBC and reports from Finance, Internal Audit and external auditors at a time of severe pressure on Council budgets.

The debate took almost 20 minutes, the longest time spent on any single item on the evening’s Agenda.

Other items covered in the rest of the meeting
The meeting started with 3 one minute silences for (1) the victims of the terrorist outrage in London; (2) Roger Croft (Leader West Berkshire Council) who died in a car crash in France and (3) the passing of Moira Dickenson (former Labour Councillor 1979-87).

Agenda Item 5 questions from members of the public [at 00:12:00]. Roger Lightfoot asked why the Council was considering bringing operation of the South Reading Leisure Centre, currently operated by Academy Sport, back in-house, and what would be the expected cost.

Councillor Paul Gittings answered:

The primary reason the Council is seeking to progress the transfer of South Reading Leisure Centre from Academy Sport back to the Council is to enable a new Academy Chain to take over the running of what is currently John Madejski Academy (JMA) and provide a better education for young people in this part of Reading.

For legal and confidentiality reasons, Cllr Gittings was unable to answer the supplementary question [at 00:15:40] about whether Academy Sport could hand back the contract without penalty when there could be significant work needed on the roof (six figure sum).

Agenda item 6 – Questions from Councillors. Katesgrove councillor Matt Rodda asked Tony Page the usual “approved” questions [Q2: at 00:22:21 and Q3 at 00:30:21] to highlight work in the Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport Arena. The Greens attempts to get greater transparency with their questions were met by the usual political put downs.

Agenda item 7 [at 00:47:49] – Councillors’ Allowances Scheme 2017/18. As ever councillors, with some mock embarrassment, voted through unanimously their own allowance scheme without increase.

Agenda item 8 [at 00:54:28] – Pay Policy for RBC staff was unanimously approved.

Agenda Item 9 [at 00:55:52] – The council unanimously approved the appointment to the “new” post of Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service – Peter Sloman (currently Chief Executive of Oxford City Council) with a start date of 1 July 2017. He will replace Simon Warren, who has been interim Managing Director since July 2016.

Agenda items 10 & 12 – Motions on Fair Health Care Funding for South Reading Clinical Commissioning Group [at 00:59:00] and Refuge Provision for Women Fleeing Domestic Violence [at 00:01:32] were both approved unanimously.

An observation
The big beasts on the Labour front benches keep their young whippersnappers on a tight leash. So much so they look incredibly bored and some resort to firing off tweets, giggling and disrupting other colleagues to view their mobile phone. The web cam captures these behaviours while Jo Lovelock and Tony Page are speaking.


References and Links

  1. Council meeting 28 March 2017 – papers
  2. Council meeting 28 March 2017 – webcast
  3. Audit & Governance Committee 17 November 2016 – papers
  4. Full CIPFA Practical Guidance for Local Authorities and Police (2013 edition) costs £100. Free to download are the contents and a sample of the guidance and a range of briefings produced in November 2016.
  5. Auditors finally deliver report on council finances
  6. Miliband pays tribute to Reading Labour stalwart Moira Dickenson
  7. Permanent new Chief Executive set to be appointed
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