Burnham and Highbridge Town Council has this week explained why ‘proper practices’ were not followed in recording its accounts last year after an audit report raised a number of concerns.
The report highlighted that processes were not followed in recording the accounts during the completion of the council’s annual return.
Due to a change in the Practitioners Guide for town councils, which sets out ‘Proper Practices’, the Town Council was required to incorporate into its 2018 Return the income and expenditure and reserves of the Joint Burial Committee (JBC) in which it participates with a neighbouring council.
However, the report states: “During May 2018, auditors found that 100% of the income and 100% of the expenditure of the committee had been included in the Council’s accounts rather than just the Council’s share of this income and expenditure as required. This was not in compliance with the updated requirements of the national Practitioners Guide for town councils.”
The issue was discussed during this month’s Town Council meeting where a member of the public, Paul Young, raised concerns about the matter on behalf of Cllr Martin Cox, who was unable to attend the meeting. The issues were further discussed at the council’s Policy and Finance Committee meeting held on Monday.
Cllr Andy Brewer asked: “Can we confirm that while there have been some financial reporting irregularities, there is no evidence or any suggestion of any financial fraud?”
Sally Jones, the Town Council’s financial officer, said: “I can absolutely confirm that there is no suggestion of that – it has been an accounting error which was corrected.”
Cllr Brewer added: “Can we reassure our residents that all the identified issues from the internal audit, and that all the actions, have been or are being addressed?” She confirmed they are, responding: “Absolutely.”
Cllr Brewer went on to ask: “Are there any implications for the Town Council, officers or councillors as a result?” Sally responded: “There aren’t any implications from an internal audit point of view.”
During Monday’s meeting, Cllr Phil Harvey added: “The report that our financial officer has provided shows that in that last 12 months our previous Town Clerk was not responding in time to items that were being raised. And I think that we were as members not really aware of this.”
“We were told, for example in March, that there was a report from the internal auditor and it says we were content with the explanation from the clerk regarding how these would be properly addressed.”
“We took it on trust that these were being addressed. What this report shows is that that wasn’t happening, which is unfortunate, difficult and it might cost us some reputation and some financial cost.”
Cllr Harvey went on to point out that financial regulations for councils state that reconciliations should be checked ‘once a quarter’ and any exceptions notified to the Policy and Finance Committee. He remarked: “Frankly, I can’t remember anything being reported to the Policy and Finance Committee of this activity from a person who was not the Chairman. I think that’s something we haven’t been doing… we haven’t been tightly looking at our finances as we should do.”
He suggested that a session be held after May’s Town Council elections for new councillors on “financial monitoring” to ensure members are aware of all the financial regulations.
Cllr Brewer told Cllr Harvey that reconciliations for the joint burial committee are “done diligently and regularly” by himself but he conceded that reporting to the Policy and Finance committee could be improved.
Cllr Mike Facey, the committee chairman, explained the council’s financial reconciliation process to the meeting and said: “I can assure members of the public that it does take place” but he agreed that reporting could be improved.
Cllr Facey added that the issued brought up in the audit have been addressed and he added: “I can assure you that they won’t happen again.”
The committee also approved the Council’s Financial Regulations that Sally and the new Town Clerk Sam Winter have updated. It was also confirmed that the councillors elected in May will be invited to attend a full induction, which includes training on their role in relation to financial matters.