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Politics

Welsh councils fail audit requirements

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Maenclochog: A small council had big problems

JUST two-thirds of Wales’ town and community councils met the statutory deadline for publishing their audited accounts
The timescales for councils to publish their accounts are set out by law, and yet only 486 of Wales’ Town and Community councils (66%) met this deadline in 2019.
There are 735 community and town councils in Wales. As a tier of local government, they are elected bodies, with discretionary powers and rights laid down by Parliament to represent their communities and provide services for them.
As at 30 November 2019, while a further 51 audits had been completed, 38 community councils still had not submitted accounts for audit. The number of qualified audits is still too high at 218 councils. This is according to a report issued today by the Auditor General for Wales.
The audit arrangements for community councils are designed to provide residents with a reasonable level of comfort that public money is being handled effectively. With councils handling more public money than ever, it’s increasingly important that councils follow the process set out in law.
However, the Auditor-General’s report shows that the number of councils failing to submit their accounts on time has risen compared to last year.
The failures have led to 218 qualified audit opinions to date, which means 218 councils either failed to comply with their statutory requirements or misstated information in their annual return. While this is less than last year, this number may rise once work on the remaining councils has been completed.
There are circumstances in which issues are of such significance that the Auditor General brings these to the attention of the public. During 2019, twelve such reports were issued in the public interest due to significant failures in the management of public funds by local councils.
MAENCLOCHOG A CASE IN POINT
One of the reports issued in 2019 concerned Maenclochog Community Council, where the Wales Audit Office identified a worrying series of governance failures for the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Maenclochog’s Community Council, with an annual precept of £4,000, is one of the smallest Community Councils in Wales. However, in spite of its small budget, councillors – who are ultimately responsible for ensuring public money is fully accounted for – failed to check proper accounting records had been maintained. The absence of bank statements reconciled to items of expenditure meant that the Wales Audit Office couldn’t provide an opinion on whether or not the annual accounts properly present the Council’s receipts and payments.
As a result, the WAO qualified the Council’s accounts for both 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Auditor also mad a swingeing criticism of councillors for failure to ensure compliance with basic governance requirements. The Maenclochog report discloses that in the two financial years covered by the report, councillors had signed off on statements that they had fulfilled their statutory duties when they had done no such thing.
While the then clerk’s tardiness was a significant factor in the Council’s failure to comply with its statutory responsibilities, the Auditor points out council members sitting at the time bear responsibility for the Council’s failure to file accounts on time, or at all, until the WAO intervened in January 2018.
Since that time, a new clerk has been appointed to the Council, while the failures took place in a period which bridged the 2017 community council elections.
The report found no evidence that the Council took any steps concerning the overdue accounts. The Council’s minutes do not record any concerns related to the delayed submission of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 accounts.
The Auditor concluded, therefore, individual councillors did not understand their responsibilities about the accounts.
There was also no evidence the Council had prepared a budget either for 2015-16 or 2016-17, as required by law.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Auditor General, Adrian Crompton said: “Local councils are expected to play an increasingly important role in the delivery of public services and local communities. While I am delighted to see the positive response from some councils to our recommendations from last year,
“I am disappointed that some councils still receive qualified opinions for multiple reasons. I recommend that all councils consider the issues raised in this report and reflect on whether any of the issues may apply to them.”

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Politics

Details of Welsh lockdown, starting next Friday, leaked online

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THE DETAILS of The Welsh Government’s plans for a short lockdown starting at the end of next week have been leaked online and shared on Andrew RT Davies’ Facebook page. He is the Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the National Assembly for Wales.

He said online today: “So there we have it courtesy of Bubble Wales. The details of Mark Drakeford’s proposed lockdown across Wales are now public and below. Everything to be closed bar essential retail.

“What is the point of Senedd? The Presiding Officer needs to drag these clowns in on Monday.”

The letter, a copy of an original published by Bubble Wales, suggests that the lockdown, which will be similar in nature to the one put in place in March, will be announced on Monday and would last until Sunday, November 8.

That means the lockdown would be in place for 17 days.

Andrew RT Davies: Shared leaked letter online

However, ministers in the Welsh Government have said repeatedly that they haven’t made a decision on whether to go ahead with it yet and are due to decide this weekend.

The letter says: “[The fire-break lockdown] will take us back to the situation in March when all but essential retail outlets were open – pubs, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers etc – will all be closed.

“It covers the half term break (Friday, October 23- Monday, November 2) but some schools will reopen on November 2.

“Ministers have not yet determined the details on this; it seems that primary schools will reopen, but a decision on secondary schools will be made over the weekend.”

The letter goes on to say: “While the message for public transport will be essential journeys only, the Welsh Government is yet to decide what level of services should run over the three-week lockdown period.

“They fully recognise that changes cannot be made overnight by operators and that ramping up services is a more difficult and complex task than reducing them.”

On Friday (Oct 16) Mr Drakeford spoke about the plan as a possibility, saying: “This would be a short, sharp shock to the virus, which could turn back the clock, slowing down its spread and buy us more time – and vital capacity in the NHS.

“A “fire-break” would also mean a short, sharp shock to all our lives – it would mean shutting down businesses and the economy.

“We would all have to stay at home to once again save lives. But this time it would be for weeks not months.

“We’re considering a two or three-week “fire-break”. The shorter the period, the sharper the measures will have to be.”

ROW OVER WHO WILL PAY

The planned national lockdown for Wales still has many details to finalise before any final announcement of its terms and length.

The major sticking point is money.

During the UK-wide national lockdown from March to July, the Westminster Government picked up the tab for paying Welsh workers’ wages and provided a massive amount of extra funding for business support.

From November 1, the UK government will support eligible businesses by paying two-thirds of each employee’s salary, up to a maximum of £2,100 a month.

Businesses might also be eligible for grant support of up to £3,000 a month to meet other costs.

Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will receive a total of £1.3bn in increased funding this year to cover similar measures.

Businesses will only be eligible to claim the grant while they are subject to lockdown restrictions.

Council leaders across Wales have expressed their deep concern to Welsh Government ministers about the lack of any detail of what will be done to provide financial support to businesses, particularly those which are not forced to close by lockdown restrictions but close as a knock-on effect of lockdown.

Local authorities, which channelled most business support during the lockdown which began in March, have still not been told by the Welsh Government what help or how much will be available for businesses in that position, let alone how it will be delivered.

The sour relationship between the Welsh Government and Westminster is not likely to help Mark Drakeford’s administration if it looks for fresh funding help from the Treasury to bail it out of the wider economic consequences of a Wales-wide lockdown.

If the Welsh Government tries to go it alone to soften the blow, it faces making significant cuts elsewhere in its budgets.

A photo of the leaked letter

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Politics

Drakeford to make decision on ‘fire-break’ lockdown in Wales by Monday

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WALES is facing a national lockdown lasting at least two weeks in plans described as a “fire-break” by the first minister.

He said a decision was likely to be made on Monday, while talks continue with health officials, scientific advisors and councils over the weekend.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

Responding to the speculation First Minister, Mark Drakeford, is set to announce a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in Wales, Welsh Conservative health spokesperson, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “I implore the First Minister to think again before heading down this path.

“The decision to lockdown Wales once again will have devastating consequences – from an economic and public health perspective – and should be the last resort.

“Only yesterday, the former director of communicable diseases at Public Health Wales, Dr Roland Salmon, said a circuit-breaker is likely to fail and the Welsh Labour Government should listen carefully to his warning.

“Earlier this week, Welsh Conservatives called for the urgent resumption of shielding in Wales with a substantial package of support to ensure the financial, physical and mental well-being of those most at risk is protected.

“This should be the immediate action taken by ministers along with prioritising PPE and testing in the problem areas in Wales such as hospitals, care home, universities and meat factories.

“It’s not too late for the Labour Government to reconsider and choose a different approach in Wales.”

Mr Drakeford warned that 2,500 people were now being infected with coronavirus every day in Wales, with critical care units in hospitals full.

“A successful fire-break would re-set the virus at a lower level,” he added.

Together with a new national set of rules for the whole of Wales after the fire-break period we would have slowed the virus down enough to get us through to Christmas.”
Plaid Cymru has been calling on Mr Drakeford to introduce the circuit-breaker without delay, while Labour at Westminster says a similar approach should be adopted in England.

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Politics

Deputy First Minister says use of Penally Camp needs to end ‘as quickly as possible’

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THE DEPUTY MINISTER of the Welsh Government has issued a lengthy statement stating that the end of the camp should end as quickly as possible

Jane Hutt MS, who is also the Chief Whip, says that the camp does not meet the basic human needs of people seeking a new life in the UK and that the camp risks re-traumatising many vulnerable people who may have been fleeing abuse and torture.

The full statement can be read here:

‘Equality and human rights are central to the work of the Welsh Government and our vision for Wales. We believe in fair treatment of every person, especially those who are most marginalised by social systems that prevent people from meeting their basic needs.

Now more than ever, we need to ensure that those seeking sanctuary are safe, secure and not at risk.

We can be proud of the way our nation has responded to successive refugee crises, providing a warm welcome and opportunities to integrate with our communities. However, the decision by the Home Office to use the Penally military camp as a centre to house asylum seekers is the direct opposite of the Nation of Sanctuary approach.

We believe the use of the camp should end as quickly as possible.

The Welsh Government has repeatedly expressed significant concerns about the suitability of the camp at Penally being used to accommodate asylum seekers.

The camp does not meet the basic human needs of people seeking a new life in the UK. It places people in accommodation, which is neither designed nor appropriate for long-term use – mainly poorly insulated huts – and risks re-traumatising many vulnerable people who may have been fleeing abuse and torture.

We sought a delay to the opening of the camp to ensure plans were put in place with local services to enable them to prepare for the arrival of asylum seekers, particularly to make sure covid-19 public health measures were in place. The Home Office denied this request and, as a result, proper measures have not been put in place.

We have made repeated reasoned approaches to the Home Office to make changes to protect the health and wellbeing of the asylum seekers relocated to Penally, while also continuing to engage with local residents.

The Nation of Sanctuary plan is built on the Well-being of Future Generations Act. We involve asylum seekers in our plans and seek to integrate people into communities from day one of their arrival in Wales.

We seek to prevent the most harmful outcomes, such as re-traumatisation and hate crime, while aiming for long-term solutions. We work collaboratively with partners and affected communities to ensure decisions are made constructively and transparently. Crucially we put the person at the centre of what we do – an individual’s needs are more important than their immigration status.

The Home Office’s decision to use Penally camp does none of these things and is incompatible with the Welsh Government’s approach to inclusive and cohesive communities.

We have yet to receive a clear rationale for the reason why the Home Office chose this site to relocate asylum seekers, nor have we been provided with a clear strategy about how the Home Office will address the lack of dispersal accommodation throughout Wales and the United Kingdom.

To date, there has been no financial help from the Home Office for these public bodies to deliver services in these exceptional circumstances during a period in which they have been under unprecedented pressure.

Public bodies in the area are understandably concerned by the potential impacts of this development on a small rural community.

Despite these constraints we are grateful for the spirit of collaboration and dedication with which public bodies locally have approached this situation and to members of the community who have provided a warm and supportive welcome.

I would like to thank the police, local authorities, the NHS and the third sector, and all of our partners for their flexibility and resourcefulness over the last few months. We remain grateful for their support and expertise.

The third sector has rallied to provide support to the asylum seekers transferred to the Penally camp. Migrant Help is coordinating offers of support and has been overwhelmed with gifts and welcome messages. English language tuition providers, including the Oasis centre, are working to provide tuition, Victim Support is engaging with individuals relating to hate crime and other organisations are seeking to understand and plug gaps in services, where they are able. Faith communities have worked on an inter-faith basis to ensure adequate facilities are put in place for religious observance.

I hope we can continue to build on these relationships going forward.’

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