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Apologies for Absence
To receive any apologies for absence.
There were no apologies for absence.
Declarations of Interest
To provide an opportunity for Members and Officers to declare any disclosable pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests in any item on the agenda.
In the interests of openness and transparency, in respect of item 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council) the Chair noted that three members of the Committee (Councillors Carol Bulman, Rachel Bailey and Margaret Simon) had formed a Hearing Sub-Committee for Handforth Parish Council, however none of the meetings went ahead as they were either postponed or cancelled.
In the interests of openness and transparency in respect of item 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council), both David Brown, Director of Governance and Compliance and the Monitoring Officer and Jamie Hollis, Interim Head of Legal had received complaints made against them that related to Handforth Parish Council and these complaints were not able to be resolved prior to the meeting. As a consequence of this, both officers were not in a position to give any legal advice to the Committee on this matter.
It was noted that the Committee had been provided with an Independent Legal Advisor, Jonathan Goolden, but officers would remain the room to answer questions of fact if needed.
In the interests of openness and transparency, in respect of item 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council), Councillor David Marren noted he had received email correspondence from and although he had read the information, it did not predetermine his view and he was approaching the meeting with an open mind.
Councillor David Marren declared a pecuniary interest in respect of agenda item 8) Internal Audit Plan 2022/23 as the report mentioned Orbitas and Councillor Marren will be the Chair of this Alternative Service Delivery Vehicle, (ASDV), for the next few weeks.
In the interests of openness and transparency, in respect of agenda item 10) Risk Management Update, Councillor Patrick Redstone declared he was a school governor and schools were referred to as part of the update. Councillor Redstone declared this interest during agenda item 10.
Public Speaking Time/Open Session
In accordance with paragraphs 2.24 of the Council’s Committee Procedure Rules and Appendix on Public Speaking a total period of 15 minutes is allocated for members of the public to put questions to the committee on any matter relating to this agenda. Each member of the public will be allowed up to two minutes each to speak, and the Chair will have discretion to vary this where they consider it appropriate.
Members of the public wishing to speak are required to provide notice of this at least three clear working days’ in advance of the meeting and should include the question with that notice.
Visiting Councillor Liz Wardlaw attended the meeting and addressed the Committee in her role as Chair of the Scrutiny Committee in respect of agenda item 10) Risk Management Update and 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub-Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council).
Councillor Wardlaw noted her concern in relation to Strategic Risk and Corporate Priority SR2: NHS Funding and Integrated Care System specifically changes to NHS colleagues, the impact of changes on services and residents and the need to ensure budget setting is robust and joined up.
Councillor Wardlaw also noted concern in relation to Risk SR13: Reputation specially the reputation of the council in the wake of negative national interest that related to Handforth Parish Council. Councillor Wardlaw noted the need to be mindful of relationships with residents and applying professionalism and speed when dealing with enquiries as some feedback from parish councils alluded to a perceived wall of silence from officers and a lack of joined up thinking.
Ashley Comiskey-Dawson, the clerk to Handforth Town Council attended the meeting and spoke in respect of agenda item 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub-Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council). Mr. Comiskey-Dawson noted the high costs associated with the report before the Committee today arising from an initial complaint emanating over 12-months earlier. Mr. Comiskey-Dawson had experienced distress during this time but that he had followed up with the Local Government Ombudsman as he felt that a bullying culture was present by elected members at all levels of governance. He maintained a need for transparency and facts.
Chairman of Handforth Town Council, Councillor John Smith attended the meeting and spoke in respect of agenda item 9) Member Code of Conduct Sub-Committee Report (Handforth Parish Council). Councillor Smith gave reassurances to the Committee that Handforth had changed the name from Parish to Town in an attempt to rebuild the Town Council devoid of the negative associations it had previously demonstrated. Councillor Smith noted that in the seven years he had served as a town and parish councillor, he had not experienced the positive partnership working now being demonstrated.
Councillor Smith made two requests to the Committee:
a) He noted that information had been submitted about him that was inaccurate and requested that 60 pages be removed from the published report in an attempt to discourage the spread of inaccurate information; and
b) The report contained correspondence that was irrelevant to the investigation and contained insulting comments. He requested those elements of the report be redacted or removed in its entirety.
To recieve a summary of recent Member Code of Conduct complaints and associated investigations involving elected members of Handforth Parish Council.
Page 16 of the report contains exempt information as defined in paragraphs 3 and 4 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972. It may therefore be necessary for the Committee to exclude the press and public in order to consider this page.
Jonathan Goolden attended the meeting as an Independent Legal Advisor to the Committee. David Brown, Director of Governance and Compliance, and Monitoring Officer advised the Committee that he would remain in the room but was there to answer factual questions on the report only and that Jamie Hollis, Interim Head of Legal would add any detail.
The Interim Head of Legal advised the Committee that across the borough of Cheshire East, there were 108 parish councils comprising of over 1000 parish Councillors. The overwhelming majority had no interaction with the standards process at all.
A working group comprised of members from this Committee had been formed to reconsider the Cheshire East code of conduct and process. Sufficient and robust training and development would be offered to colleagues within Town and Parish Councils, to implement changes and be sufficiently adequate for councillor to challenge where appropriate and resolve local issues.
The Committee were advised that the council had received a number complaints about and between Handforth Parish Council, and this was the first practical application of the member complaints process in five years. The summary report was requested by the working group before the new year.
In total, between 2018-2020 a total of 21 formal complaints were received, and rose significantly after media attention in 2020/21.
The costs and resources to deal with these complaints were outlined within the report, and the Committee were advised that the time and proportionality were key to its deliberations on this matter.
Recommendation 2.1 b and c as outlined within the report had been amended after the papers had been published to reflect as follows:
2.1. That the Committee –
b) Request that the Audit & Governance Committee Working Group consider any consequential amendments to the Code of Conduct and associated process arising from this report;
c) [ Request publication of the investigation reports referred to in this report, following appropriate redaction, within 14 days of this meeting ]
The Committee challenged the amendment to the recommendations after publication of the agenda, Councillor David Marren gave reassurances to the Committee that it was normal practice to brief the Chair and Vice Chair of any changes post-publication, and the changes were due to the potential for confusion and lack of clarity on 2.1 b. The new wording made the recommendation clear, and the Chair was confident had these changes not been implemented now, the Committee would have had the same debate to change the wording.
The Committee were reminded that this was a forward looking review, to learn from and it would inform future process.
There was some discussion by the Committee that included:
· The acknowledgement that whilst it was appropriate to outsource this work, there was a substantial cost associated with this report;
· The adoption of the new process would help to mitigate anything like this happening in the future and the need to escalate complaints in a timely manner;
· The personal cost to those involved and the need to support the volunteers within the town ... view the full minutes text for item 67.
To approve as a correct record the minutes of the meeting held on 17 January 2022.
The Committee considered the minutes of the previous meeting and requested the following changes:
Item 9) Statement of Accounts, page 9 to read:
· The Committee asked to record its thanks to all those in the audit team and external audit team and congratulations to the work being carried out.
Councillor Mike Sewart noted that on page 6, item 53) update on the local ward budgets and ‘Top Up’ service pilot scheme the substantive issue was for the Highways and Transport Committee and they would be providing the outcome on the future of the scheme.
Councillor David Marren added that the Committee had been advised that a copy of the government criteria for the Highways funding had been promised to the Committee but to date had not been received.
Whilst he appreciated the substantive issue was for the Highway and Transport Committee, the amendment from Council did not mention a pilot scheme, the Chair agreed that it appeared that a decision had been implemented that had not been agreed and this was a matter that needed to be resolved.
That subject to the changes outlined above, the minutes be accepted as a correct and accurate record.
To review the action tasks that emerged from the meeting on 17 January 2022.
The Committee reviewed the action tasks from the previous meeting.
Highways Funding: was deferred to Josie Griffiths- for a potential item on the Work Programme.
Partnerships Funding: David Brown, Director of Governance and Compliance and Monitoring Officer circulated a note to the Chair and Vice-Chair for consideration ahead of anything further being added to the Work Programme.
The other items remained on the Action Log for progression as soon as possible. It was noted that John David, Interim Head of Highways and Infrastructure had been present via Teams to address the Committee on item that related to the Update on the Local Ward budgets and 'Top Up' service pilot scheme but had to leave so his item would return to a future committee meeting.
That the Action Log be received and noted.
External Audit Progress and Update Report
To receive a verbal update on the External Audit Progress.
Muhammed Uzair Khan, External Auditor from Mazars attended the meeting via Microsoft Teams and updated the Committee on the report and update.
The Committee were advised that a national evaluation issue had been identified that related to the value of infrastructure assets. Two major suppliers had communicated to their clients intention to pause sign-off on all local authority audit reports and opinions until this issue could be resolved. Mazars took the same approach with Cheshire East, risk was minimal and should not have a material impact on service delivery, however it could affect the amount the council value assets.
The Committee thanked the External Auditor and Alex Thompson, Director of Finance and Customer Services and Section 151 Officer for their responses to this issue, and noted that the valuation point of assets are always a point in time and never fluid.
That the verbal update be received and noted.
To consider the Certification of Grants and Claims.
Alex Thompson, Director of Finance and Customer Services and Section 151
Officer advised the Committee that there were two items to note within the report for this item and they related to external audit and teachers pension.
a) the findings of the external audits regarding these certification processes be received and noted;
b) no errors or exemptions were found following the testing of the 2020/21 Housing Benefit Subsidy claim and no recommendations for improvements were made to the DWP be noted.
c) a number of minor findings were reported to management following the audit of the Teachers’ Pension Certificate be noted.
To receive and approve the Summary Internal Audit Plan for 2022/23.
Councillor David Marren left the room.
Josie Griffiths, Head of Audit and Risk advised the Committee that the current plan was based on current resource and priorities rather than the traditional 3-year plan previously used, this was to enable agility and the focus to be on emerging issues.
Current resources would ensure sufficient work to be undertaken to deliver an annual opinion for 22/23, but fragility within the resource was noted as two posts were being covered with temporary posts. This was allowing work to be delivered efficiently and effectively.
The Chair thanked the Head of Audit and Risk for the team response and efforts during challenging times without a full suite of staff.
There was some discussion on:
· Complaints via schools that the B4B financial system had not worked properly for 3-months, the Head of Audit and Risk advised there was ongoing planned learning from the B4B system but any feedback from Members would be helpful;
· The Audit team was carrying small vacancy but that had not impacted on work, options that related to apprenticeships had been explored, but the recruitment issue to this sector was being seen at a national level. Whilst there was a place for agency staff, there was an economic cost and a potential risk that dependency on that resource could leave the service vulnerable;
· Internal Audit provided services to PATROL and Cheshire East was the Accountable body for the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), the Committee noted that in view of bringing in income from other sectors the council must have assurances on the permanence of the work force to avoid paying additional costs for temporary/agency staff but then losing income from that work outside of capacity. The Committee requested an update to next committee and a watching brief on this area of work.
It was noted by the Committee that the external auditors had stayed on the Teams call and were interested in the discussions by the Committee.
a) the Internal Audit Plan 2022/23 be received and noted;
b) priority work during quarters 1 and 2 along with additional areas for consideration during quarters 3 and 4 be received and noted; and
c) progress against the plan, and the priorities for the last 6 months be reported back as part of the regular updates to the Committee.
To consider the update on the Strategic Risk Register for the period Quarter 3 2021-22.
Councillor David Marren came back into the room.
Josie Griffiths, the Head of Audit and Risk introduced the report to the Committee and invited any questions or comments.
The Committee noted the earlier comments that related to reputational risk raised during public speaking time by Councillor Liz Wardlaw. Some Committee members had also had similar feedback from parish councils in respect to a perceived wall of silence from officers and a lack of joined up thinking. There was some discussion about the need to understand customers in times of crisis and how front-line officers can best respond to them.
There was an acceptance from the Committee that Place-based activities for the council posed the greatest risk to reputation given that residents will judge these services more because they have direct experience with them.
That the Strategic Risk Update for Quarter 3 2021/22 be received and noted.
To receive an update to the Committee on the appointment of co-opted independent members to the Audit and Governance Committee, and a recommendation from the appointments panel.
Jamie Hollis, Interim Head of Legal introduced the report to the Committee that provided an update to the Committee on the appointment of co-opted independent members to the Audit and Governance Committee, and a briefing on the appointments process for the Council’s Independent Persons.
Currently one co-opted member of the Committee had been recommended for approval from a panel that consisted of Members from this Committee and two Independent Persons had been recommended for approval via for approval by officers who had undertaken a recruitment and assessment process.
a) the report be received and noted;
b) the co-option of the first Independent Member to the
Committee (identified within the report) for a period of 4 years; and the appointment of two Independent Persons (identified within the report) under the Localism Act 2011, for a period of 4 years be recommended to full Council; and
c) the remaining co-opted independent member vacancy for the Audit and Governance Committee be readvertised using the same process and member panel to shortlist and interview and any recommendations be considered by this Committee before any endorsement to full Council.
To consider the Decision Notices issues by the Local Government Ombudsman.
Alan Ward, Complaints Officer attended the meeting via Microsoft Teams to
introduce the report. The Committee were advised there had been two upheld
complaints between 1 December 2021 and 31 January 2022. One related to Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and one to Highways.
The Committee considered the report and the following points were made:
· The costs attributed to upheld complaints through delays by the council;
· The acknowledgement that officers get things wrong but when complaints were upheld the possibility of appropriate measures to motivate improvement; and
· Reports to Councillors via the Town and Parish Councils that complaints are not resolved and the impact of this on the reputation of Cheshire East Council.
The Committee considered what reassurances could be implemented, the Director of Governance and Compliance and the Monitoring Officer noted that the Committee had agreed, as part of the Action Tasks, that a consolidated report of upheld complaints would be compiled to help identify themes and trends. The Chair requested that each theme be considered on its own merit to recognise lessons learned and seek reassurances that things will get better and that the reputation of the Council would not drop.
To consider the Work Plan 2021/22 and 2022/23.
There was a request by the Committee for further detail on the Medium Term Financial Strategy Earmarked Reserve that included criteria of spend and spend to date.
The Director of Finance and Customer Services and Section 151 Officer noted that the same question had been raised at Corporate Policy Committee and as a result this had been added to the Work Programme of Finance Sub Committee for June where speculative figures would be used not forecasts. To avoid duplication of work this Committee could attend that meeting and receive their report and minutes for assurance.
a) the Work Programme be received and noted;
b) the Work Programme be brought back to the Committee throughout the year for further development and approval;
c) the Chair and Vice Chair meet John David, Interim Director of Infrastructure and Highways via Microsoft Teams to discuss potential items for this Committees Work Programme and shared with the Committee;
d) the item on the Medium Term Financial Strategy Earmarked Reserve be added to this Committees Work Programme to review the decisions made by Finance Sub-Committee; and
e) an item on Reputational risk and assurances on the customer experience be added to this Committees Work Programme.