By Tony Collins
Increasing numbers of local government and NHS officials are paying themselves salaries of £100,000 upwards, and some more than £500,000, but competence in handling public money appears to be diminishing.
Today, the outgoing head of the National Audit Office Amyas Morse expresses “shock”. He said,
“I am shocked by the persistent high level of qualified audit reports at local public bodies.
“A qualification is a judgement that something is seriously wrong, but despite these continued warnings, the number of bodies receiving qualifications is trending upwards.
“Let us hear no cries of ‘where were the auditors?’ when things go wrong. The answer will be ‘they did the job, but you weren’t listening’.
“This is not good enough; local bodies need to address their weaknesses, and departments across government should ensure they are challenging local bodies to demonstrate how they are responding.”
Today’s National Audit Office report “Local auditor reporting in England 2018″ says that the number of NHS and local government bodies with significant weaknesses in their arrangements for delivering value for money for taxpayers is “unacceptably high and increasing”.
The report makes no comparison between how well or badly NHS and council organisations are run in comparison with the salaries paid but it makes a point of saying that there are no consequences for councils and other public bodies of having a poor grip on how they spend public money.
Says the National Audit Office,
“There is no direct consequence of receiving a ‘non-standard’ report from a local auditor.
“While departments responsible for the oversight of local bodies may intervene in connection with an issue, such as failure to meet expenditure limits, there are no formal processes for reporting publicly whether bodies are tackling these issues.
“Departments use information from local auditors’ reports to differing extents to inform their understanding of the issues local bodies are facing, but they also need to be able to challenge local bodies to demonstrate that they are taking appropriate action where necessary.
“Given increasing financial and demand pressures on local bodies, they need to take prompt and effective action to strengthen their arrangements and improve their performance when issues are raised.
“The proportion of bodies with insufficient plans for keeping spending within budget or who have significant weaknesses in their governance, is too high.
“This is a risk to public money and undermines confidence in how well local services are managed. Local auditors need to exercise the full range of their additional reporting powers, especially where they consider that local bodies are not taking sufficient action.”
Anyone who reads the National Audit Office latest findings together with the numerous reports about poorly-run council IT-based outsourcing deals, including ones at Somerset County Council and Barnet Council, and an IT-related fraud involving Barnet council that was spotted by chance, is entitled to ask: are some council officers and councillors serving themselves better than local communities?
Alongside amounting evidence of poor decision-making – or worse – in local government and the corporate NHS, there is a general lack of openness and, as the National Audit Office points out, widespread failures to act diligently on auditor findings.
Council taxes are rising, spending on important local services is diminishing yet the amounts paid to layers of senior management at councils and within the NHS and NHS England are rising without any link to competent decision-making.
For the most part, top officials cannot be fired. Their jobs are not appraised or at risk as they would be in the private sector. Indeed some councils change senior job titles regularly and increase the salaries they pay themselves.
There is no sign of austerity when it comes to the pay of departmental leaders in local government.
Published figures indicate that at least 2,500 council officials were paid more than £100,000 each last year — and about 500 of them grossed in excess of £150,000, more than the prime minister earns.
The number whose total remuneration was in six figures has also risen. A report by the Taxpayers’ Alliance found that 16 local government CEOs received more than £300,000 and four grossed in excess of £500,000 in 2016-17.
All of which raises the question in the headline of this post: do some councils serve their own officials and councillors better than the public?
Local government officers defend their pay levels by saying that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.
But some primates with large brains work remarkably well in their local communities. Do council departmental chiefs on unjustifiably large salaries always work well for their local communities? Or do they serve their own interests rather better than they serve the public?
Local auditor reporting in England – NAO report