People’s Audit Five – “ONCE THE AUDIT PERIOD HAD BEGUN THE ATTITUDE OF THE COUNCIL AS A WHOLE WAS OBSTRUCTIVE”
Lambeth council are slammed in the report for their obstructive attitude towards the People’s Audit.
The report says:
- Lambeth imposed a blanket ban on providing contracts or any detailed information with regard to payment of invoices, citing commercial confidentiality.
- That on a number of occasions “officers refused access to information after first indicating that we would have access.”These and other actions “clearly limited our ability to properly audit Lambeth’s accounts” say Lambeth Peoples Audit.
The report says: The audit period started poorly. The audit regime allows the public 30 days to inspect the accounts and ask questions.
Lambeth did not place the notice advertising the local electors’ inspection period on their website until the day before the inspection period started.
The notice should be placed at least two weeks before the inspection period starts to give the council adequate time to respond to electors’ queries.
Once the audit period had begun the attitude of the council as a whole was obstructive. A number of times officers refused access to information after first indicating that we would have access.
This could suggest that senior management was exerting pressure on officers not to release information.Despite repeated chase-up e-mails, for the first week our requests were completely ignored by Lambeth.
We were then told that we were being unreasonable in the amount of information that we were requesting. We were fully aware of how long it should take to retrieve information and purposefully sought to limit our questions so that they would not take up officers’ valuable time unnecessarily.
We even offered to help officers retrieve information or sit in front of a computer screen to save time. In any event the legislation does not provide for any limit on the amount of information that can be requested.
The next obstacle that was placed in our way was that Lambeth issued a blanket ban on providing contracts or any detailed information with regard to payment of invoices, citing commercial confidentiality.
The most information we managed to garner from Lambeth was a selection of fairly non-descript invoices, which represented a tiny proportion of the information requested.
Despite us providing case law and reasoned argument as to why information would not be considered commercially sensitive, at no time did Lambeth justify why they considered information to be commercially confidential.
It took Lambeth over three weeks to produce the first piece of (minor) information requested. If financial systems are being managed properly, finding such information should take a matter of minutes, hours at most.
It was over a month before Lambeth had even an initial batch of information for us to review, leaving almost no time to interrogate the information and put in questions and objections if necessary.
In one instance a member of the Peoples’ Audit team received the first piece of information he requested at 5:42PM on the final day of the inspection period.
All of this clearly limited our ability to properly audit Lambeth’s accounts.
In addition to refusing access to information, there was also a large amount of information that Lambeth simply couldn’t find.
Over £8 million of invoices we requested in relation to housing repairs simply do not exist on Lambeth’s accounting system.
Apparently the finance department does not hold invoices for housing repairs. These are held by the housing department, so the finance department does not know exactly what they are paying for.
This obvious lack of an audit trail is the sort of thing that Lambeth’s external auditor should have picked up, but appears not to have.
We found other similar examples of poor practice. For example BOLD there were payments which had been made without either an accompanying invoice or the necessary authorisation.
This was also noted by PWC’s recent audit of Lambeth’s Decent Homes programme which stated “For 1/5 payment applications a copy of the payment application could not be obtained and the item was not recorded on Keystone [Lambeth’s information database].” (Source: Lambeth Peoples’ Audit report).