Internal audit report raises concerns over county council’s book-keeping

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Concerns have been raised over the county council’s financial management following an internal audit.

West Sussex County Council’s Annual Audit Report 2014/15 was discussed at a Regulation, Audit and Accounts Committee meeting on June 29.

The report stated in bold: “It is the Head of Internal Audit’s opinion that the county council has a governance, risk and control framework that provides a limited level of assurance regarding the economic, efficient and effective use of resources in achievement of its objectives.”

Key weaknesses were identified in its risk management. It stated there was a ‘complete breakdown in processes with no visibility as to how risk was considered or actively managed’.

The council’s management of its Highways maintenance contract with Balfour Beatty Living Places had ‘systematic failures’.

Some £20m of works was commissioned using an approach which did not make clear how value for money was ensured.

Concerns were raised over council officers receiving ‘inappropriate gifts and hospitality’.

The report stated: “This contract is of significant value and it was not clear how the authority was obtaining value for money in this area.

“A number of concerns in respect of managing contracts have been identified by internal [audit] in recent years in a variety of areas.”

A spokesman for the council said: “We are very disappointed that this year we have found that those systems are not working as effectively as we want and need them to in some areas.

“None of the audits has found evidence of fraud, but doubtless we can do more to ensure that our systems work better and that opportunities for fraud are reduced even further.

“Having received these audits we have already put action plans in place against all of the findings and many changes and improvements have already been introduced.

“We will regularly monitor and report openly against the progress of addressing the issues raised in these audits.”

Council leader Louise Goldsmith said: “Yes it’s uncomfortable and it gets the county council attention from the media but that is what I expected when we published this report as I’m not in the business of hiding things that might make us feel uncomfortable or look bad.

“Demanding the highest standards of probity is essential. As a result, we are looking at absolutely everything we do as a county council and with every contract we have to ensure that we deliver the very best outcomes and value for money.”

Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Crawley Central) said: “In all the time I have been on the county council, I have never seen as bad a report as this on the council’s internal performance. This highlights the significant shortcomings in commissioning at this council.

“It calls into question the ability of the council to provide services efficiently through its obsession with the blunt tool of outsourcing, especially to profit-driven companies such as Capita. But the blame is not solely on the council: how have outsource companies been allowed to win contracts, then over-promise and under-deliver to such an unacceptable extent?”

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