Magazine article Public Finance

Watchdog Watch

Magazine article Public Finance

Watchdog Watch

Article excerpt

National Audit Office

Removing the ring-fence from the local government public health grant could harm Public Health England's ability to influence outcomes, the National Audit Office has warned.

PHE was established in April 2013 as part of the government's NHS reforms to distribute a £2.7bn public health grant to councils and provide advice and evidence about approaches that work.

Reviewing its work to date, the NAO found PHE made a good start but has encountered problems with the accuracy of local authority records of spending on public health. Questions over whether the ring-fence will remain beyond 2015/16 will also have a knock-on effect on its effectiveness.

The NAO urged the agency to identify and support authorities where there is poor alignment between spending plans and local needs.

Auditor general Amyas Morse has given a clear audit opinion to the financial statement of the Courts and Tribunals Service for the first time, after significant improvements in its reporting of fines, penalties and confiscation orders. More than £518m was collected in 2013/14.

Accounting improvements include providing sufficient evidence of all reported cash flows and balances, and clearing backlogs in the legacy fixed penalty systems. New systems also allowed the service to report accruals based-balances.

Tower Hamlets

Sir Ken Knight, former chief fire and rescue adviser for England, will lead the team of three commissioners that has been sent into Tower Hamlets council. Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles confirmed in December that the commissioners would be responsible for all grant-making decisions in the London borough until March 2017.

His decision follows a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which raised concerns that Tower Hamlets was failing to comply with Best Value duties, specifically in relation to grant awards and in three property transactions.

Knight will be joined by Max Caller, chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission and former London borough of Hackney chief executive. A third commissioner will be appointed in due course.

The council is required to draw up a strategy to meet Best Value duties and recruit three statutory officers - a head of paid service, chief finance officer and monitoring officer. But Tower Hamlets' directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, has protested that the intervention is unreasonable and disproportionate.

Audit Commission

Financial reporting in councils and other principal local government bodies remained strong in 2013/14, but performance dipped in smaller bodies, according to the Audit Commission's final Auditing the accounts report.

There are 74 parish councils where auditors have qualified their opinions for three years in a row, suggesting systemic problems with financial management and governance, the watchdog said.

Overall, 506 of 512 principal bodies (98%) met the publication requirements for accounts, while there were only nine (2%) where the auditor was unable to issue an opinion on the 2013/14 accounts by 30 September 2014.

The commission raised concerns about two bodies - Hampshire Fire and Rescue Authority and the London Borough of Lambeth - that did not publish accounts by 30 September. 'For these two bodies, I am concerned by this lack of transparency,' said controller of audit Marcine Waterman.

Scotland's auditor general, Caroline Gardner, has been appointed one of three new non-executive directors of Public Sector Audit Appointments, the body that will oversee local audit contracts from next April. …

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