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Agenda and draft minutes

Venue: Committee Room B12. View directions

Items
Note No. Item

13.

Apologies for Absence.

Minutes:

The Chairman welcomed Board Members to the meeting, noted the presence of the Chief Officer & Director of Corporate Services, the Head of Finance & Section 151 Officer, the Head of Legal and Valuation Services & Monitoring Officer and the Audit Manager, and gave a special welcome to Paul Cuttle from Grant Thornton UK LLP the Council’s External Auditors.

 

Apologies for absence were received from Councillors; Mrs J A Ozog, Mrs R Gosine, S Gosine and A Lloyd, no Substitutes were nominated.

14.

Declarations of Interest.

To receive declarations of interest from Members including the terms(s) of any Grant of Dispensation by the Audit Board or Chief Officer & Director of Corporate Services.

Minutes:

There were no declarations of interest.

MD

15.

Confirmation of the Minutes of the meeting held on 21 July 2021 pdf icon PDF 222 KB

Minutes:

                        RESOLVED:

 

1.    That the Minutes of the Board meeting held on 21 July 2021 be confirmed as accurate.

16.

Urgent Items

The Chairman will announce his decision as to whether there are any urgent items and their position on the agenda.

Minutes:

The Chairman confirmed that there were no urgent items for the Board to consider.

17.

References from Other Committees (IF ANY)

There are currently no references from other Committees for the Board to consider.

Minutes:

There were no references from other Committees.

18.

Annual Report 2020/2021 of the Monitoring Officer on the Review of Ethical Governance Arrangements and Ancillary Matters pdf icon PDF 121 KB

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The covering report from the Head of Legal Services in her role as Monitoring Officer, asked Board Members to consider and endorse her Monitoring Officer’s Annual Report 2020/21 on the Review of Ethical Governance Arrangements and Ancillary Matters (attached as Appendix A to the covering report).

 

She advised the Members that her standard annual report and review had not flagged up any areas of concern, but offered to respond to any questions on the review process.

 

The Chairman thanked the Head of Legal Services for her annual report and review in her role as Monitoring Officer, and in the absence of any questions from Members the Board RESOLVED to:

 

1.     Endorse the Monitoring Officer’s Annual Report 2020/21 on the Review of Ethical Governance Arrangements and ancillary matters, as set out in Appendix A to the report.

19.

Review of Member Code of Conduct & Arrangements For Dealing With Code of Conduct Complaints Under the Localism Act 2011 pdf icon PDF 296 KB

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The report from the Head of Legal Services and Monitoring Officer, asked Members to consider the respective amendments to the Member Code of Conduct, and the Arrangements for dealing with Code of Conduct Complaints under the Localism Act 2011, as set out in Appendices A and B to her report.

 

Her recommendations to the Board (for the reasons summarised in paras 3.5 to 3.7 and 3.9 of the report), was that the Council not adopt the Local Government Association (national) Model Code of Conduct.

 

The LGA model had received a lukewarm response from Monitoring Officers nationally when published, in that there were concerns over whether it clearly and correctly mirrored the law with respect to councillors acting in a private capacity.

 

The challenge for the Council was to maintain a high ethical standards system, which served the best instincts of councillors, whilst addressing unacceptable behaviour by a minority, and guarding against potential corporate standards’ risks.

 

It was important that the Council’s [Member] Code of Conduct did not amount to just a restatement of the Nolan Principles, but specified what the Principles demanded in a specific context, in order to guide behaviour. This would avoid protracted arguments about what sort of behaviour fell under a particular Principle. The opportunity should be taken to review the Code (as amended in red script at Appendix A), to enhance its clarity, consistency and quality, and to ensure that important areas such as bullying, harassment, equalities, respect and disrepute provisions were included. 

 

The LGA had issued guidance to support the application of its Model Code.

Although not forming part of the Council’s Member Code of Conduct, the LGA’s supporting guidance should help Members comply with the Council’s Code and assist the Council in consistency of approach towards its Code.

 

A number of low-level complaints generated by a small number of parish councils in 2020/21 had caused concern. In these challenging times of public austerity, it was increasingly important to ensure the effective use of the Monitoring Officer’s resources, and that any investigation undertaken was proportionate and required in the wider public interest.

 

Under the Arrangements for dealing with Member Code of Conduct complaints, the Monitoring Officer had a wide discretion as to whether to begin or continue an investigation.  A number of public interest factors should be taken into account when deciding to investigate. Recent case law had reiterated that a councillor’s freedom of expression attracted enhanced protection when the comments were political in nature. Therefore, the criticism of opposition ideas and opinion was considered part of democratic debate and it was unlikely that such comments would be considered a breach of the Member Code of Conduct. This would not however include threats to an officer’s position or wellbeing or where comments are highly offensive or outrageous.

 

In response to subsequent questions from the Chairman, the Head of Legal Services & Monitoring Officer confirmed that:

 

·       The proposed amendments to the Code and Arrangements [as set out in red in Appendices A and B to the  ...  view the full minutes text for item 19.

20.

Complaints Monitoring and Procedure Review - 2020/2021 pdf icon PDF 311 KB

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The report from the Head of Legal Services & Monitoring Officer informed Audit Board Members of the Council’s Corporate Complaints Procedure, including the number and nature of the complaints received in respect of services provided by the Council, during the period 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021.

 

An analysis of corporate complaints in the period under review was attached at Appendix A to the report, with Appendix B providing an equalities analysis for 2020/2021.

 

Members were advised that the deadline for receiving complaints had been extended during the Pandemic, which had seen an increase in planning complaints, due in part, to Development Control Board proceedings being conducted via the Zoom platform and relayed to the public via YouTube. This appeared to have given interested parties the opportunity to re-play Board proceedings and submit subsequent challenges to Board proceedings and decisions. Complaints over waste collection had also increased during the Pandemic, given the impact on the contractor’s staffing levels due to illness and the need to isolate, and latterly, the shortage of HGV drivers.

 

The Chairman thanked the Head of Legal Services for her report in her role as the Council’s Corporate Complaints Officer. He asked whether there was any change proposed in the role of the ‘Designated Person’ - a role he was rarely required to exercise. He also noted that when dealing with complaints, the overlap between the jurisdictions of the two Ombudsmen was not always clear.

 

The Head of Legal Services confirmed that the Housing Ombudsman had advocated for the removal of the democratic filter (Designated Person) as a mandatory part of the dispute resolution process, and removal was proposed as part of the draft building safety bill.

 

RESOLVED:

 

1.     That Board Members note the report and appendices on the review of the Council’s Corporate Complaints Procedure for the period 1 April 2020 to31 March 2021.

 

21.

LGA's Councillors' Guide to Handling Intimidation pdf icon PDF 218 KB

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The report from the Head of Legal Services & Monitoring Officer enclosed at Appendix A, the Local Government Association’s Guide to Handling Intimidation.

 

Members were informed of a growing and disturbing list of intimidation tactics being used against elected councillors as reported in the press, including; physical threats, stalking, discrimination, sexual harassment and the increasing use of social media to intimidate, bully and slander councillors.

 

The growth of social media had provided an additional and largely anonymous route for individuals and groups to engage in such activity.

 

Other examples of physical intimidation were the smearing of dog faeces on cars, chair throwing from the public gallery at a planning committee meeting and the fire-bombing of a councillor’s car. As reported in the press, councillor behaviour and etiquette Zoom meetings during the Pandemic had on occasion, descended into chaos, with insults and expletives used and exchanged.

 

The LGA’s Guide covered topics such as how to handle abuse, whether face-to- face, letters, or online and the legal and practical remedies available, including the nature of the criminal offences involved.

 

It could be difficult for councillors, as elected representatives, to block or refuse to engage with residents online, even where that user was being abusive or spreading misinformation. It could also feel that online queries should receive immediate responses, such is the fast-paced nature of social media – but no-one could be at their best 24/7, nor were immediate responses always possible, necessary or advisable.

 

The Guide set out background information on the use of social media for councillors and detailed a number of key points, which Members should be aware of when interacting through social media platforms. The Member Code of Conduct would apply where Members referred to themselves as a councillor online, and they would be deemed to be acting in their ‘official capacity’ in such circumstances, and any conduct might fall within the Code. 

 

The Monitoring Officer advised that the capabilities of the World Wide Web often blurred the line between personal and professional communications. Whist social media opened new opportunities for communications and collaboration, it also created new responsibilities for individuals. Posted material could reflect not only on the individual, but also on that individual’s role as councillor and the Council. When participating in social networking or while using social media, common sense and good judgment had to be used when posting or sharing material. If not, consequences could include, among other issues, negative publicity, regulatory attention and confidentiality or copyright concerns/infringements.

 

The Code might sometimes apply even if Members did not identify themselves as a councillor.  In cases involving the use of social media, complainants might allege that comments made had brought the role of councillor or the Council into disrepute. Members were advised to be aware that their perception of when they are acting in the role of councillor can be different from the view of a member of the public, and to think about the comments they ‘like’ or ‘re-tweet,’ as they are responsible for what  ...  view the full minutes text for item 21.

22.

Report from External Auditor - Audit Findings for Dartford Borough Council for the Year ended 31 March 2021 pdf icon PDF 115 KB

This item is marked as ‘To-Follow’.

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The report from the Council’s External Auditors, Grant Thornton UK had been marked as to ‘To-Follow’ in the published agenda papers, and was considered by the Board as Appendix A to the Head of Financial Services tabled covering report. Appendices B and C respectively attached to the covering report.

 

Attached as Appendices B and C to the covering report were the Council’s annual letter of representation to the External Auditors, and the External Auditors’ annual letter formally advising the Council of the 30 September 2021 deadline for completion of the accounts for the Year ended 31 March 2021.

 

Mr Paul Cuttle (Audit Manager, Grant Thornton UK) apologised to the Board for the late presentation of his Audit Findings report for the Council in the Year ended 31 March 2021. He advised that several areas of his report remained to be finally confirmed, hopefully in the next 7-9 working days, and that the delay was in no way a reflection of the performance of the Council’s Finance Team, with whom GT retained an excellent working relationship.

 

In mitigation of the delay, he reminded Members that the previous November deadline for the final submission of annual accounts had been brought forward in 2021 to 30 September. Remote working during the Pandemic and the holding of meetings via the Zoom platform had further hampered the submission of a timely report to the Board. However, he remained confident that final sign-off of the Council’s accounts for the Year ended 31 March 2021 would be achieved by the 30 September 2021 deadline, with the exception of the Value for Money (VfM) judgement, which would need to be postponed to a later date.

 

On a positive note, Mr Cuttle advised Members that an ‘Unqualified’ Audit Opinion of the Council’s accounts was proposed by Grant Thornton, and that the previous material valuations uncertainty declared in the draft accounts concerning specific leisure and hospitality properties had been further analysed, declared ‘not material and removed from the final report. The list of proposed Audit Adjustments was listed on page 21 of his report [Appendix A in the tabled papers refers].

 

The Chairman welcomed the External Auditors’ proposal of an ‘Unqualified’ Opinion on the Council’s accounts for the Year ended 31 March 2021, and agreed to sign the annual letter to that effect [Appendix B to the report]. He also noted the contents of the External Auditors letter of 15 September 2021 [Appendix C to the report], which formally advised the Chairman of the 30 September 2021 deadline for the External Auditors report and sign-off on the Council’s accounts for the period under review, with the exception of the VfM judgement.

 

                    RESOLVED:

 

1.    That Members welcome the External Auditor’s intention to issue an

‘Unqualified’ opinion on the Financial Statements;

 

2.    That Members note the Audit Findings Report at Appendix A to the covering report;

3.    That members approve the Letter of Representation at Appendix B to the covering report;

 

4.    That Members note the letter from Grant Thornton postponing completion  ...  view the full minutes text for item 22.

23.

Financial Statements (Statement of Accountants) 2020-2021 pdf icon PDF 122 KB

This item is marked as ‘To-Follow’.

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The covering report from the Head of Financial Services presented the Council’s Statement of Accounts for the period 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021 attached as Appendix A to the report [Item 10 in the bundle of tabled papers], for the Board to consider and recommend accordingly.

 

Prior to consideration of the report and Appendix A, Board Members were given a PowerPoint presentation from the Head of Finance on the procedures involved in closing local authority annual accounts, together with an explanation of the key financial statements.

 

Members were advised that they would receive self-assessment forms on the training for completion in line with CIPFA best practice, aimed at assessing their skills, future training needs, and their assessment of the role of the Audit Board in overseeing the Council’s financial affairs. The results of the self-assessment exercise would be presented to the Board at its next meeting in January 2022.

 

In his subsequent presentation of the Financial Statements (Statement of Accounts) 2020/2021 [Appendix A to the report], the Head of Financial Services advised Board Members that the papers would be subject to further adjustments to be agreed with the External Auditors, it was hoped by the 30 September deadline for the submission of the Year accounts ended 31 March 2021, and sought the Board’s delegated authority to agree any such final adjustments but did not anticipate any significant changes to the presented papers.

 

The Chairman thanked the Head of Finance for his report and Statements of Accounts 2020-21 document. He noted the large capital re-payment from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which was due to be repaid in the current year, thereby reducing the HRA balance.

 

The Head of Financial Services confirmed in response to a specific question from a Member, that a ‘significant change’ would be expenditure in excess of £1.3M or a major change in financial policy, as result of an audit finding. He also confirmed that a final audit findings report would be presented to the next meeting of the Board in January 2022 as a matter of public record, following his concluding discussions and agreement with the External Auditors.

 

                    RESOLVED:

 

1.     That the Head of Finance be authorised to approve any subsequent amendments to the Statement of Accounts [Appendix A to the report], presented to Members on 22 September 2021, resulting from outstanding audit work, in consultation with the Chair of the Audit Board;

 

2.     That a final audit findings report for the Financial Statements (Statements of Accounts) 2020/2021, be submitted to the next meeting of the Board as a matter of public record.

 

24.

Internal Audit Update pdf icon PDF 114 KB

Additional documents:

Minutes:

The report from the Internal Audit Manager provided Members with an update on Internal Audit outcomes and activity since the last update to the Board in July 2021 [Appendix A to the covering report refers].

 

The Audit Manager confirmed the following principal points for Members in the Internal Audit Plan 2021/22 [Appendix A, Annex A agenda p.160 refers], including: the carried forward audit of Rent Collection/Rent Arrears (Current Tenants) had been successfully completed and rent arrears cleared under the Government’s COVID-19 Legislation; the audit on Waivers had been completed with a new form proposed for completion by Managers, prior to submission to Directors; an audit of Government Grants had been completed and assurance submitted to relevant Government Departments.

 

Contract management by officers across the Council remained a weakness, but follow-up action and training with managers was now proposed.

 

The Council’s Air Quality Action plan 2021 remained outstanding [report Annex C agenda p.167 refers], with an update report now due to be presented to the Policy Overview Committee in December 2021.

 

Recruitment of a new Auditor was progressing whose duties would be shared with Sevenoaks Council on a 50/50 basis under the present Partnership arrangements.

 

In concluding her summary, the Audit Manager informed the Board that she had accepted a new role, on promotion, as Head of Audit and Assurance at Bromley Council, and had tendered her resignation to the Chief Officer with effect from December. She had enjoyed her 18 months working at the Council and was leaving with a feeling of genuine regret.

 

The Chairman thanked the Audit Manager for her now final report to the Board, and joined Members in wishing her every success in her future appointment with Bromley Council, and asked that the Board’s appreciation of her work for the Council be recorded in the Minutes.

 

                    RESOLVED:

 

1.     That Members note the contents of the Internal Audit Update Report (September 2021) attached as Appendix A to the covering report.

 

25.

Selective Invoice Checks

Minutes:

Members were asked to select a further 5 invoices for checking by Internal Audit from a list presented to the Chairman by the IA Manager, with the outcome of the exercise to be reported to the next meeting of the Board in January 2022.