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Welsh councils fail audit requirements

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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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Community

Council to consider new regional relationship for school improvement

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CARMARTHENSHIRE County Council’s Executive Board will meet next week to discuss the authority’s future as part of the regional school improvement consortium ERW (Educational Regional Workforce).

The council, along with authorities in Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Swansea, has been a part of the consortium since it was established in 2014.

However, the Executive Board could decide to withdraw from the consortium to support a new arrangement for school improvement services based on the footprint of the Swansea Bay Region.

Neath Port Talbot Council has already served notice to withdraw.

Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, has recognised the many positive achievements of the consortium in recent years, but said it was right to discuss what was best for Carmarthenshire going forward.

“ERW has achieved many positive things, however it is fair to say that it has also navigated through some difficult times with changes in political and managerial leadership,” he said. “The large geographical area of the ERW footprint has added to these challenges.

“We truly value working with our neighbours, but it is timely to review the regional arrangements and potentially look to realign with other partnerships across the Swansea Bay City Region which could have bigger benefits for Carmarthenshire’s children and young people.”

The Executive Board will meet on March 16 (2020) to review the authority’s position, but has promised to work with partners to ensure a seamless and robust transition should members decide to withdraw.

Cllr Glynog Davies, the council’s Executive Board Member for education and children’s services, added: “We are committed to working in partnership and across local authority boundaries where this delivers benefits for our communities.

“It’s right to acknowledge the significant progress of ERW over the last 12 months, in terms of staffing and organisation, but we must be confident that we are providing the very best support for our schools and it’s timely to look at how this can best be achieved.”

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Johnson’s reshuffle throws up jokers

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IT WAS all about ‘The Saj’.
The shock departure of the former Chancellor from the government only a few weeks before his first Budget surprised media commentators and MPs alike.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘did-he-fall/was-he-pushed’ resignation aside, the reshuffle was a return to the traditional way of Cabinet reshuffling Cabinet members. Out with the competent and argumentative and in with a collection of flunkies and stooges who owe everything to their loyalty to Brexit and Boris Johnson.
Julian Smith became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in July last year. In his brief tenure in that role, he managed to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and a cross-party power-sharing executive after three years of constitutional limbo during its suspension. That is the sort of signal achievement which usually leads to promotion. However, Mr Smith was an advocate of a ‘softer’ Brexit than proposed by Number Ten. He had gone so far to comment, in October last year, a no-deal Brexit would be “a very, very bad idea for Northern Ireland”.
Competent and with a record of achievement in his brief Cabinet tenure, he had to go.
His replacement is former Conservative Party Chair, Brandon Lewis. Ironically, one of the Conservative MPs who broke pairing arrangements at Mr Smith’s direction when the latter was Chief Whip.
The reaction to Julian Smith’s departure was a series of aghast tributes by all sides in Northern Ireland and Mr Lewis’ appointment greeted by the sort of ‘dangerous indifference’, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested was behind his predecessor’s sacking.
Mr Lewis is as loyal as a loyal thing. You tell him what to be loyal to and he’ll be loyal to it. Rather like a cushion, he bears the impression of the last backside to sit on him. He will lead the nodding dog tendency in Cabinet meetings.
The only tension in the Cabinet with him in it will be whether he or Health Secretary Matt Hancock gets the first Boris Bonio after meetings.
There weren’t only high profile departures, though. Liz Truss remains in place as Secretary of State for International Trade. No. Don’t laugh. Ms Truss’ presence at the Cabinet table is a sign of hope and a beacon to others. Her continued tenure in government is evidence that no matter how dimwitted, mediocre or out-of-their-depth a person is, this is a government of opportunity for all. Her presence shows senior backbenchers with talent, intelligence, and ability that their gifts are no substitute for those qualities’ total absence. To new Conservative MPs with room temperature IQs, her example shows that they, too, can aspire to Cabinet status.
The same might be said for Matt Hancock. The Health Secretary, who’s behaviour in the election campaign marked him out as a man to watch – preferably while he sat in a padded cell rocking to himself and murmuring the words ‘forty new hospitals’ over and over – is the only person in the country to take what the Prime Minister says at face value. The incredibly credulous Hancock has chained himself to the wheel of misfortune and will spin every disaster into a triumph with puppy-like devotion. Like a whipped dog will try to make friends with its tormentor, Matt’s loyalty is endless.
The departure of Andrea Leadsom demonstrates that even Boris Johnson thinks a joke can be taken too far. Floundering in every position she ever occupied, it is difficult to conceive that she could have been the leader of her party, and subsequently PM, barely three years ago, Ms Leadsom’s legendarily argumentative nature ushered her to the Cabinet door.
Her replacement at the Department of Business, Energy, Investment and Skills (BEIS) is Ashok Sharma. Mr Sharma’s appointment is interesting. He might be dangerously half as clever as Boris Johnson thinks he is, which means he could run rings round the PM. His ability was rewarded in a particularly cunning way. Accepting a role turned down by a former PM and a former Foreign Secretary, Mr Sharma will coordinate and chair the government’s preparations for the next round of climate change talks, due to take place in Glasgow later this year.
If the conference achieves anything, highly unlikely as the US, China and India will stall any possible progress, the praise will be the government’s and therefore Boris Johnson’s. Like the Sun King, Boris is not only a state but the state. If it all goes the well-known shape of a pear, Mr Sharma gets to take the fall. Rewarding ability with a poisoned chalice: that’s the way of government these days.
Theresa Villiers’ departure from DEFRA and her replacement with George Eustice received a cautious but warm welcome from farming unions and rural organisations. Ms Villiers’ naked enthusiasm for the benefits of free trade and blindness to the consequences of it for UK agriculture did little to instil farmer with any confidence in her to do what was best for the industry. From a farming background himself, Mr Eustice is far better placed to sell any betrayal to those farmers who, free of the EU as they wished, find their businesses going down the pan if/when imports of lower quality and lower price undercut them after December 31 this year.
The Department of Culture Media and Sport (Don’t Care Much, Seriously) has a new Secretary of State in Oliver Dowden. Mr Dowden replaces Nicky Morgan, a minister you couldn’t possibly describe as two-faced as she wouldn’t wear the one she does if she was.
Mr Dowden’s main ministerial achievement in a brief parliamentary career was his replacement by Jonny (‘Did I mention I was in the Army?’) Mercer as a junior flunky in the Cabinet Office. His task is to put into place the Government’s policy of neutering the BBC and trashing public service broadcasting. A PR man before entering parliament and – as a special advisor to David Cameron – a PR man for a PR man, Mr Dowden will have to sell the Government’s plans to dismember the BBC to the public and MPs.
The appointment that caused most comment and concern was Suella Braverman’s promotion to replace Geoffrey Cox QC as Attorney General. Brexiteers hailed Mr Cox’s independence of mind and judgement when he declined to rubber-stamp Theresa May’s proposals for an Irish Backstop as part of her doomed attempts to force a Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. He also loudly – he doesn’t do quietly – laid into the High Court’s decision that Mr Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. However, Mr Cox is also a person with a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law and the need for courts to act as a check and balance on poorly-made and ill-considered legislation. The growth of Judicial Reviews of governments’ laws can be partly laid at the door of those who prepare legislative measures in haste and then repent at leisure as the Court’s painstakingly explain why they are unenforceable or unlawful. Whatever his flaws as a Government minister, Geoffrey Cox is a proper lawyer with a keen understanding that bad laws and incompetently-prepared legislation are properly subjected to scrutiny by the Courts.
Suella Braverman has no such scruples. An advocate of increasing political vetting of judicial appointments, she also has no evident skills as either an advocate for sound law and sound law-making.
The role of the Attorney General is to advise the government, as impartially as possible in the circumstances, on a range of legal issues arising from its planned legislative programme. Ms Braverman’s appointment is a sign that what Boris Johnson wants most from his law officers is a nodding-dog approach, a readiness to sign-off on any crackpot plan, and knifing the Courts for doing their job properly in a plural democracy in which an overmighty executive needs curbing.
The most rabid of Brexiteers and an appalling media performer whose backside she often confuses with her humerus, Suella Braveman cannot be relied upon to do what’s right but can be relied upon to do what Boris Johnson tells her is right. Otherwise, her main qualification for her new role seems to be the gift of forgetting that she studied at the Sorbonne under the Erasmus programme and had her post-graduate studies in Paris funded by the French embassy. In other words, precisely the sort of exposure to continental education and cultural enrichment this Government is dedicated to ending.
And finally, we come to the new Chancellor. Rishi Sunak’s rise to power is proof that enormous personal wealth, a background as a merchant banker and having a job working for his indescribably wealthy father-in-law. All that might be unfair to Mr Sunak; however, replacing state-educated Sajid Javid with a privileged alumnus of Winchester could be easily interpreted as an attempt to broaden the government’s appeal to distressed billionaires.
Mr Javid’s loaded remarks around the circumstances of his dismissal, ‘no self-respecting minister would continue to serve’ (if ordered to sack his entire team of ministerial advisors) suggests Mr Sunak’s self-respect is in inverse proportion to his self-regard. It is also a sign that Mr Johnson has restored the long-forgotten tradition of the Exchequer as a money chest at the beck-and-call of a prime-ministerial whim. Mr Sunak’s one advantage is that he can scarcely be sacked after the manner of his predecessor’s leaving. At least for as long as he does what he’s told.
The cringe-worthy sight of Mr Johnson’s new Cabinet at its first meeting playing call and response with the class bully suggests that Boris Johnson now has a team he wants. More-or-less malleable office-holders who will do as they are told. Taking back control, it turns out, means an uncontrollable PM.

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Politics

Local Assembly Member praises the work of Therapy Dogs

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Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Assembly Member Angela Burns met with Jed the Therapy Dog and his owner during their visit to the Senedd recently.

Jed and Georgina were there along with other therapy dogs and owners to meet with Assembly Members and tell them about the valuable role that the therapy dogs undertake at hospitals, hospices, schools, residential homes and prisons throughout the country through the charity Therapy Dogs Nationwide.

Jed is a regular visitor to Skanda Vale Hospice in Carmarthenshire and provides an excellent service to some of the patients there.

The charity provides calm and happy dogs to visit facilities to undertake emotional and relaxing therapy to those who may not have access to pets themselves.

Commenting Angela said

“As a dog owner myself I know the companionship and emotional support that they can provide.

“The Therapy Dogs Nationwide is an amazing charity with some lovely dogs of all shapes and sizes who I have had the pleasure to meet today. We often forget about the value of mental wellbeing when it comes to health or emotional issues and these dogs provide an invaluable service.

“I also want to pay tribute to the owners who volunteer their own time to accompany their pets on visits. It would be great to see more people have access to this therapy in the future.

“I look forward meeting Jed or one of his colleague again soon when I next visit the Skanda Vale in West Carmarthenshire.”

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