Friday, 30 July 2010

Can Somebody Give the Audit Committee a Slap?

I'm beginning to think that the Audit Committee will believe anything they're told, especially where housing benefits are concerned.

In March 2009 I wrote about how NCC's internal audit service reported various problems, including claims processing accuracy, to the Audit Committee meeting on 13 February 2009. In response the committee said -

"(i) under ‘post payment checks’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for basic errors should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;

(ii) under ‘processing of new claims’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for poor performance should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;

In response to (i) and (ii) above, it was reported that both actions had been completed and all staff were now fully trained" 

So. Everything's ok then. It's all tickety-boo.

Moving onto the 18 December 2009 meeting, which I wrote about in January of this year, the committee had an interim progress report from the Audit Commission which was none too complimentary about Housing Benefits and in fact said that accuracy levels were getting worse -

"We found a higher number of errors in the processing of individual claims than in previous years, although the overall effect on the amount of subsidy due to the Council was small. We will be discussing with officers why the number of errors in our samples has increased."

Surely that would worry you following the internal report before the earlier committee? It doesn't seem so, they were mollified with -

"...that quality control errors in individual benefit claims’ processing, highlighted during the audit, were being addressed through joint working between officers and the Audit Commission;

attempted fraudulent benefit claims would be identified by application of the City’s Counter Fraud Strategy and the Government’s National Fraud Strategy."

Again, it's all fiiiiine, nothing to worry about, chill man.

Essentially the committee were taken in hook, line and sinker. I wrote about the bombshell that awaited the committee at its 28 May 2010 meeting last month and we've just got the minutes through. To remind you, the Audit Commission informed them at this meeting that NCC's claim for Housing Benefit subsidy was so strewn with errors that they had been overpaid by around £2m. Using the accepted international scale of fuck-ups I think that one deserves 'almighty' status.

And despite the various reassurances given at previous meetings the commission found that errors had increased further and that no quality control activity had been carried out through 2008/9 and 2009/10. This means that at least a similar level of error is expected next year.

This time the committee would have had enough surely? They're going to put their foot down this time right? Wrong.

"the issues raised in the report, around housing and council tax benefits, were not only a City problem, they occurred at most authorities nationally;

the City was expecting a £2 million shortfall (from the expected Department for Work and Pensions grant of £133 million) due to the issues mentioned above;

with regard to items such as taxes, the City was putting action plans in place to address the issues raised in the report."

Calling it a shortfall rather than an overpayment probably makes it sound less contentious. And another vague promise of 'action plans' seems to again satisfy the committee that all will be well.

We're beyond hook line and sinker now, we're talking beer-battered and wrapped in newspaper with a sachet of brown sauce to go. I mean what is wrong with these people, are they goldfish? Can they not remember anything from one meeting to the next?

I really don't know how things are supposed to improve if nobody is held to account and proper measures put in place to fix the problem. Issues of accuracy go back years as NCC sacrificed quality for quantity in an effort to get processing times down.

If the government asks for its £2m back that should hopefully be a wake-up call because that will significantly mess up the accounts. But the Audit Committee need a slap quite frankly because they've had warnings of these problems and they did nothing.

No comments: