LAMBETHWATCH – ANSWERING THE PEOPLE’S QUESTIONS – THE VIEW FROM LAMBETH COUNCIL OFFICERS
The following is a précis of the officers report to Lambeth council’s corporate committee on issues surrounding the People’s Audit and Freedom of Information questions to Lambeth council.
The full report can be found at item 7 on the agenda for the corporate committee meeting of 28 September 2017. Please search ‘Lambeth.gov meetings’
Under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 and the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2015 the council has to allow the local Government electors for the area to inspect its accounts for the year together with any associated information.
The Local Audit and Accountability Act states in section 26: Inspection of documents etc (1) At each audit of accounts under this Act, other than an audit of accounts of a health service body, any persons interested may— (a) inspect the accounting records for the financial year to which the audit relates and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and other documents relating to those records; , and (b) make copies of all or any part of those records or documents.
The officers report to committee says section ‘a’ above is wide ranging in enabling individuals to request records under this Act and the wording is unchanged from the Audit Commission Act 1998.
“1.6 There is a small group of electors in Lambeth who make significant use of Public Inspection and the council receives a high volume of queries compared to neighbouring Authorities.
“Most of the electors who asked queries in 2015/16 asked queries again in 2016/17 and some raised Freedom of Information requests during the year.
“During the public inspection period some of these individuals wrote a number of times to senior officers in the council, the leader, councillors and local MPs, the National Audit Office, media outlets and the Mayor of London.
“Council staff were responding to the high volume public inspection queries and queries from other sources that the same electors had directed their questions to, at the same time as dealing with queries from the external audit of accounts, which has its own statutory deadlines for responses.
“Accordingly this in an area which generates workload and cost for the council.
The Legislation for Public Inspection
“1.7 The wording of the legislation enabling members of the public to inspect the ‘books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts…’ is unchanged from the Audit Commission Act 1998 and conjures up an image of an organisation with filing cabinets full of paper holding this information and is not in line with a modern paperless office environment.
“This can create an unrealistic expectation with electors regarding what inspecting the documents actually means.
“1.8 In practice records are held on a financial system and items, such as invoices, need to be retrieved individually by an officer trained on retrieving data from that particular system.
“The council’s main financial system is Oracle. Housing records are held on a separate system called Northgate and care placement information is held on Mosaic. “Contracts are held on a separate contract register software.
“At the request of a local government elector for any area to which the accounts relate, the local auditor must give the elector, or any representative of the elector, an opportunity to question the auditor about the accounting records.
“1.9 Data retrieved from the system usually contains sensitive information. “For example invoices often have contact names, housing records usually contain addresses, care data can contain names of clients and contracts contain signatures, pricing or favourable terms that are commercially sensitive.
“The data therefore has to be analysed and redacted where necessary before being available for inspection.
“ 1.10 A number of queries contained requests that would have taken an unrealistic level of resource to respond to.
Council officers tried to make judgements in this regard taking guidance from the separate Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation which has an 18 hour officer time limit and does not require responses to vexatious or repeated queries.
“Where questions were directed to service areas, it was not always possible to keep officer time down to this limit.
“The council also did not provide information for queries which were not related to finance or the statement of accounts as these needed to be resubmitted via FOI for the council to track and record under that particular process.
“1.11 In August 2017 the director of finance wrote to the National Audit Office outlining the volume of queries it had received, at the same time as managing the audit of accounts, and the view that the legislation governing public inspection did not provide the same structure and guidance as the more recent Freedom of Information legislation and a review of this was required for the benefit of both council officers and the electorate.
2015/16 Public Inspection
“1.12 In 2015/16 the council received queries from 12 electors with each asking multiple queries. “Queries were handled personally by the Assistant Director Corporate Finance, who continued correspondence throughout July 2016 with the electors and liaised with colleagues internally to obtain responses to queries where possible.
“ A number of the electors exercised their right to inspect the accounts in person and the assistant director corporate finance met the electors concerned in early August 2016 to provide them with what had been collated.
“Overall the council spent 237 hours of officer time responding to these queries at a cost of £11,778. “The volume of queries was a significant increase on any previous financial year.”
(There then follows ( 1.13) a summary of queries received in 2015/16 which are too lengthy to include here – Ed.)
2016/17 Public Inspection Process and Queries
1.18 For 2016/17 the public inspection period ran from the start of July to 11 August. Queries were received from 17 electors asking a total of 172 questions. At the time of writing this report officers have logged 302 hours of officer time responding to these, at a cost of £12,176. Nine of the electors who asked queries also asked queries as part of the 2015/16 public inspection.
1.19 In preparation for the public inspection period the council published a public inspection protocol on its website (which is attached to the report to committee), and setup a public inspection mailbox to handle queries which was checked on a daily basis whilst the period was ongoing.
Two accountants were tasked with collating information and responses to queries, liaising with services to obtain responses and following up where required.
One officer liaised directly with the electors while the overall process was managed by another officer. This setup has enabled the council to handle queries with greater focus and efficiency.
1.20 Although there were a range of queries, from reviewing queries over the two years there are themes relating to regeneration estates and libraries and the volume of queries and associated workload have arisen from the same group of electors and their queries.
(Again ( 1.21) there is a summary of queries received during the period which would be too long to reproduce here – Ed.)
Proposal and Reasons
2.1 The council has dedicated a large amount of officer time to supporting the public inspection process over 2015/16 and 2016/17, a six week period which runs concurrent to one of the finance team’s busiest times during the audit of accounts.
Extra officer time has been spent during the year supporting auditors with dealing with the objections raised regarding the accounts and supporting a response to the 2015/16 Lambeth People’s Audit which was released during the public inspection period.
2.2 Over the two years the Council has been able to respond to most queries raised and has invested significant resources supporting this process……….
2.3 The process ran smoother and more efficiently in 2016/17 than in 2015/16 as the council learnt from the volume of queries received in the prior year. Officers will review the 2016/17 process for any learning points to improve the process going forward.
2.4……….. The council are unique in the volume of queries it has received and will continue to review its approach to these queries and will also take forward discussion with central Government regarding reviewing legislation in this regard to clarify the process for officers and residents.
As News From Crystal Palace has previously reported: 2.5 It is proposed to update corporate committee quarterly on the objections raised with the external auditors and to have this as a regular item on the agenda.