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.
The Chair took the opportunity to welcome both Mr Ron Jones, the co-opted Independent Member to this Committee. Mr. Jones had previous audit experience and served for a number of years as a governor at South Cheshire College, and Councillor James Nicholas the new Vice-Chair for this Committee.
The Chair asked that the thanks of this Committee be put on record to Councillor David Marren for the work he did whilst in on the Committee.
Mr. Carl Leech and Mrs. Edy Hicklin attended the meeting and spoke with regard to the Best4Business Programme.
Mr. Leech was a Cheshire East resident, and a headteacher in a Cheshire East maintained School and had concerns about the functionality of the new payroll system as part of the Best4Business programme. The Committee were advised that 2 members of staff from other Cheshire East schools had wages paid from Mr. Leech’s budget over a number of months, this totalled £10k or approximately 1% of the budget. Mr. Leech believed that these kind of errors undermined the system and wanted this Committee to be aware of that and the monitoring of financial standards.
Jane Burns, the Executive Director of Corporate Services, and Executive Sponsor for Cheshire East Council for the Best4Business programme since August 2021 advised the Committee that she was not aware of the specific issues raised by Mr. Leech. However, she was aware of feedback from some schools. In April 2022, she and the Executive Director of Children’s Services had written to all Head Teachers, Business Managers and Bursars acknowledging the impact of the major change to finance, procurement, human resources and payroll systems and the significant implications for those who use it. The system was still in a position of hyper-care having been rolled out in November 2021 which gave an additional level of support to users. The Transactional Service Centre was working to address any issues that had been identified. The Committee encouraged Mr. Leech to forward specific concerns for resolution.
There was a Shared Services Joint Committee and a shared Scrutiny Committee that comprised of both Cheshire East and Cheshire West and Chester Members, and they had agreed to undertake a deep-dive of the Best4Business programme to identify any lessons learned.
Executive Director of Corporate Services gave reassurances to the Committee that communication was a key part of addressing issues, and that additional support sessions had been put into place for schools with further support under consideration.
Mr. Leech asked a second question on behalf of his Business Manager Mrs. Edy Hicklin. Mr. Leech advised the Committee that as a maintained school, the governors and Head Teacher were required, by the Local Authority to submit an annual financial statement to provide assurances that the basic financial functions were being met. At the most recent governing body meeting, it was decided that the statement would be submitted before the deadline of the 30 March 2022 but not signed due to the number of issues experienced via the Best4Business programme.
The Committee heard that the specific points raised by the school were:
· support with issues was restricted to email;
· the delayed access of systems going live and tasks were rushed to meet deadlines;
· the school credit card was used in order to purchase items rather than risk being cut off by suppliers which bypassed procurement protocols;
· data being passed to the Department for Work and Pensions and staff concerns about the lack of pension contributions over a number of months; and
· the general anxiety for staff on a monthly basis that systems would fail.
Mr. Leech brought up a specific case involving a member of staff who had been underpaid significantly over the space of two-months but acknowledged that because of the due diligence of the Business Manager the wait time was reduced to 3-days from 10.
Mr. Leech had concerns about the accountability of the Best4Business system, the communication issues and the personality liability for himself and the Business Manager.
The Executive Director of Corporate Services gave reassurances to the Committee that the correspondence sent out in April gave named contacts for schools with points for escalation which was the appropriate route. She apologised on behalf of the team for the frustrations experienced by Mr. Leech and his staff and asked for details on any outstanding issues still awaiting resolution.
The Chair thanked Mr. Leech and Mrs. Hicklin for their attendance and contribution to the Committee.