(Chief Internal Auditor) To consider the attached report (AGC-013-2017/18).
The Chief Internal Auditor presented the Internal Audit Monitoring Report for the period September to November 2017.
The Chief Internal Auditor advised the Committee that three reports had been issued since the previous meeting, all of which had been given substantial assurance: Health & Safety – Lone Working; Council Housebuilding Programme; and Local Plan Staffing Resources. The Audit Recommendation Tracker currently contained 3 recommendations which had passed their due date; one medium priority recommendation for Health & Safety – Townmead Depot, and two low priority recommendations for External Data Transfers.
The Chief Internal Auditor reminded the Committee that a limited assurance audit report had been issued regarding Health and Safety at the Townmead Depot. A detailed action plan was drawn up and good progress was being made to address the issues raised. As part of this, an independent Fire Risk Assessment was undertaken in February 2017 which made further recommendations concerning fire safety. The majority of these recommendations had yet to be actioned, and an interdisciplinary group had been established to address this.
The Chief Internal Auditor reported that the Corporate Fraud Team had achieved the following since September 2017:
· three further Right-to-Buy applications had been stopped or withdrawn;
· a further Council-owned property, which had been the subject of a succession fraud, had been recovered;
· a former tenant had been convicted of two counts of fraud relating to illegal sub-letting;
· a further Social Housing fraud prosecution was scheduled to go to trial in early 2018; and
· a joint working arrangement had been entered into with Broxbourne Borough Council, on a paid-for basis, to provide a fraud service for two days per week.
The Chief Internal Auditor stated that the review of the data matches from the National Fraud Initiative for 2016/17 was in progress and Internal Audit was providing training and guidance for Officers to review their matches. Previous exercises had found that many matches were not fraudulent and there was usually a simple explanation; no significant frauds had been identified to date.
The Chief Internal Auditor added that staff within the shared service were represented on a number of business groups and project teams in addition to less formal meetings, to provide advice and guidance, including:
· the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Working Party;
· Programme and Project Management;
· Personal Data (Payroll/HR);
· the Corporate Debt Working Party; and
· the Risk Management Group.
Finally, the Chief Internal Auditor informed the Committee that the Council’s Whistleblowing Policy and Procedure had been revised and approved by the Corporate Governance Group. The two main procedural changes were:
(i) Timescales – setting out how long an investigation might take; and
(ii) Investigating Procedures – to guide staff who might be nominated as an Investigating Officer.
Staff would continue to be reminded about the Council’s Whistleblowing Policy and Procedure on a periodic basis in ‘District Lines’ as well as through poster campaigns. The Committee was requested to recommend the approval of the Policy and Procedure to the Council.
Cllr Jennings felt that Lone Working training should be mandatory for all new starters with the Council, and accepted the difficulties in attracting Planning Policy Officers to work on the Local Plan as the District was just outside London; had the Council considered increasing the salaries available for these positions when they were advertised? The Director of Governance acknowledged the suggestion concerning Lone Working training and this would be considered. The Council had utilised various methods for recruiting Planning Policy Officers; some candidates initially accepted a position with the Council, but then backed out when they were offered more money at another authority. All Councils were experiencing the same difficulties at the current time.
Cllr Jennings was also disappointed that more than six months had passed since the Fire Risk Assessment at Town Mead Depot, and little or no progress had been made with the implementation of the recommendations. The Lead Officer should now be requested to attend the next meeting of the Committee and provide an explanation for this situation, as the Council could not allow matters of Health & Safety to not be acted upon. The Director of Governance stated that there had been progress towards implementing the recommendations from the Fire Risk Assessment, but the Committee was perfectly within its rights to request the Lead Officer to attend the next meeting and provide a full explanation.
The Chief Internal Auditor acknowledged that the original audit had highlighted a number of Health & Safety issues at the Depot, but the recommendations from this Audit had been addressed. The Fire Risk Assessment was part of the recommendations from the Audit, but the Council had been slow to implement the recommendations from the Assessment. The Inter-Disciplinary Group which had been set up were now addressing these issues, and there was due to be a review meeting with the Group in December.
Cllr Whitehouse expressed some surprise that the Health & Safety issues at the Depot were not highlighted until after the Audit. The Chief Internal Auditor explained that Town Mead Depot was a very small site, which was shared with Waltham Abbey Town Council. The site had not been well maintained for a number of years and no one had full responsibility for the whole site; the Assistant Director of Neighbourhoods (Technical Services) had now been given overall responsibility for the site, including Health & Safety issues. There were circumstances as to how this situation had developed, but the Committee was reassured that real progress was now being made.
The Finance Portfolio Holder advised the Committee that the initial delay was due to consideration being given as to whether the Town Mead Depot should be retained by the Council. The Director of Governance added that various options for its future was explored between 2014 and 2016, and that this Depot had been treated slightly differently to the other Council-owned Depots.
Cllr Jennings pointed out that the Council had already been waiting six months for the recommendations from the Fire Risk Assessment to be implemented, and the Committee needed to see evidence that these processes were being put in place. Cllr Patel also reminded the Committee that he had been asking questions about Health & Safety issues at the Council’s commercial properties, and wondered whether the Committee could request a Select Committee to investigate further. The Director of Governance reminded the Committee that the Director of Neighbourhoods could volunteer one individual to come along and address the Committee. However, the recommendations from the Audit report had been actioned, and it was the Fire Risk Assessment recommendations which had been implemented in a tardy fashion – for a variety of reasons.
The Finance Portfolio Holder counselled the Committee that, as the next meeting of this Committee was not until February, this issue could be considered at the next meeting of the Neighbourhoods Select Committee. It was important for the Council to learn the lessons from this situation for the future as there was always room for improvement. The Director of Governance suggested that the Portfolio Holder could give a verbal update on the situation at the Depot at the next Cabinet meeting on 7 December 2017. Cllr Jennings stated that he would prefer an Officer to attend the next meeting of this Committee and provide an explanation, as it would advertise to all Officers that this was an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Cllr Whitehouse enquired as to whether there would be follow-up Audits for Health & Safety – Lone Working and the Council Housebuilding Programme. The Chief Internal Auditor assured the Committee that these two areas would be monitored closely by the Internal Audit Team in the immediate future.
In respect of the Whistleblowing Policy and Procedure, the Chairman commented that there appeared to be no connection with the Complaints and Comments Procedure, which in his opinion were also a different type of whistleblowing. Officers were encouraged to think about a broader Policy in the future, including complaints and comments in order to gain the full benefit of all customer feedback.
The Finance Portfolio Holder highlighted the success of the Corporate Fraud Team in selling its services to a neighbouring authority.
(1) That the progress made against the Internal Audit Plan for 2017/18 be noted; and
(2) That the summary of the work performed by Internal Audit and the Corporate Fraud Team for the period September to November 2017 be noted; and
(3) That the revised Whistleblowing Policy and Procedure be recommended to the Council for approval.