June 13, 2024

Proposed audit backstop dates deemed ‘unacceptable’

Proposed deadlines for future local audits could interfere with elections if they are scheduled during pre-election periods, warned the Local Government Association’s economy and resources board last week.

Senior advisor in finance at the LGA Bevis Ingram told the board last week that some of the proposed dates for publishing audited accounts could mean qualified or disclaimed opinions would be published in the weeks leading up to an election.

In a bid to “catch up” on backlog of external audit accounts being published, the Department for Levelling Up, Communities & Housing (DLUHC) has proposed phased deadlines for outstanding audits, starting with a backstop by 30 September 2024 to publish audited accounts for financial years 2015-16 to 2022-23.

Future deadlines are:

Financial year accounts Deadline 
2023-24 31 May 2025
2024-25 31 March 2026
2025-26 31 January 2027
2026-27 30 November 2027
2027-28 30 November 2028

One of the dates that has raised concerns is 31 March 2026, as local elections are scheduled on 7 May. However as the general election date has not yet been announced for this year, 30 September may also be in pre-election period.

Mr Ingram admitted that the LGA did not initially notice the significance of these dates when responding to the government’s proposal, but he added: “It might be seen to be an issue for somebody who’s having an election that year if they then publish during that election campaign, a set of accounts has been qualified or disclaimed.”

Vice chair of the board, Lord John Fuller (Con) added that there is a “narrative developing” around central government that the “useless councils can’t get their act together and we’re bringing down or we’re impacting the whole of the economy- but that’s not true”.

He said he is concerned about how the government would “treat” the audit data ahead of an election, citing the example of the Office for Local Government data being used by The Times to create a “league table” despite DLUHC previously insisting this would not be the case.

Lord Fuller said: “Any sort of good will or benefit of the doubt that we may have had with all the warm words and soft soap from Oflog, where they were ‘going to do it properly’ evaporated like hot tarmac. I don’t think we are in a position to give the benefit of the doubt on this and we should resist.”

He added that “going back in the strongest terms” about the “unacceptable” timing of the backstop dates could be “tactically the right play” with DLUHC “given the way they’ve treated the Oflog stats” as a means to “beat us with a stick”.

Hampshire CC councillor Ian Stephens (Ind) said this could lead councils “open to attack at local level” and a publishing date during an election period is a “big problem no matter which way your audits are going”.

Leader of Gloucestershire CC, Mark Hawthorne (Con) said this is “really important” to get right as “some of the qualifications that we’re getting on audits now for councils are actually about things that are that are outside of our control and that they were actively lobbying government for a resolution on”. He gave the statutory override for the designated schools grant as one example.

He added: “We all know that in the auditors will really bear down hard on councils in their audit report on this particular issue and the problem you have is that in that purdah period, is you’re not actually able to go out to the public and explain in detail the root cause of this particular issue.”

Jim Hakewill (Ind) admitted that “pointing out” how the “newly established unitary” North Northamptonshire Council has “no audited accounts whatsover” during the three years of its existence “will be part of an election campaign for us next year”.

Cllr Hakewill added: “In the commercial world if you are looking to invest in a business that hasn’t registered its audits for three years, you would certainly not do it.”

The board agreed to propose 28 February as an alternative date for the backstop in 2026.

The government response to the consultation on local audit is expected at the end of June, according to the LGA.

A DLUHC spokesperson told the LGC how the government is “carefully reviewing responses to the consultation and will set out its intentions and response to the feedback in due course”.

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