The Committee is asked to consider the actions taken to address the recommendations made and progress to date
The Chair welcomed Wayne Bowcock, Chief Fire Officer (CFO), Cllr Dave Norman, Cabinet Member and Jon McGinty (Commissioning Director) to the meeting.
Theresa Mortimer, Chief Internal Auditor (CIA) explained the purpose of the report was to provide independent assurance to the Committee that the Internal Audit recommendations made in relation to the audit reviews emanating from the independent investigation of GFRS, had been / were being addressed. Members were advised that Pages 51 to 64 provided a high level summary of all activity progress undertaken to date. The CIA stated that the three audit reports presented complete the initial suite of internal audit reviews (18 in total).
Members were referred to the GRFS Syrian Refugee Report conclusions as detailed on page 72 of the report. The Committee were advised that only limited assurance could be provided on the control environment as a result of the findings.
The CFO advised the Committee in relation to the Syrian Refugee grant that he acknowledged that there were some improvement actions identified that would be addressed but it should not cloud the good work the service had achieved. As over 270 refugee families had been resettled and the Home Office was very pleased with GFRS performance and handling of the situation.
The GFRS Fleet Management, pool cars and fuel cards audit report and expenses audit report contained a great level of detail and were not deemed to be easy reading. It was explained that these were historic practices and processes in place at the time and many of the issues arose due to the lack of GFRS policy. The CIA explained that the audit findings were based on facts and operational practices.
One member remarked that the Syrian Refugee programme was deemed a success as the Committee had not heard about it and assurance could be taken in that it was a positive area of work. However, the member continued to raise concerns that there were two major service breakdowns within the Authority, namely Children’s Service and GFRS. He suggested that it was necessary to find out what the key issues were and to drill down in order to establish what went wrong, to avoid similar re-occurrence.
The CIA advised the Committee that it was essential to reflect and identify improvements or any lessons learned when things go wrong. The CIA advised that there was collective ownership of corporate learning and that Monitoring Officer, would be able to advise on this wider corporate learning.
In respect of Internal Audit, the CIA reaffirmed that Internal Audit forms part of the three lines of defence / assurance model, internal audit being the third line i.e. providing independent assurance that the key material risks facing the Council are being adequately managed / controlled. Management (as the first line) responsible for identifying, owning and managing risk and corporate risk compliance functions as the second line.
Internal Audit therefore bases assurance activity on risk, as required by the Public Sector Internal Audit Standards (PSIAS) and the planning process involves research of corporate objectives, priorities, performance / risks and dialogue with all key stakeholders in the Council, Directors / Members / Managers to identify where the risks are and where assurance is required. This sits alongside Internal Audit’s own assessment of risk. In the case of GFRS there were no risk indicators highlighted as part of this process. The key issue in this case was due to culture. Continuing to promoting whistleblowing and staff surveys will help to tease out cultural issues.
In addition to provide assurance on good governance it had been agreed that the Chief Executive and Chair of the Corporate Assurance Scrutiny Committee would attend the Audit and Governance Committee on an annual basis to provide the committee with the opportunity to discuss the council’s governance, scrutiny & risk management arrangements.
In respect of the wider corporate learning, the Monitoring Officer explained that Peer Reviews had been undertaken as they were a method of Corporate Learning and these were at the request of the full Council. During the peer review many members were interviewed which reflected various challenges and the work being undertaken. As a result of these findings changes had occurred within the Performance Team, to ensure those issues were picked up and reported to the appropriate scrutiny committee in an effort to understand the underperformance. In addition, the performance team also undertook regular meetings with front line staff to closely monitor the situation.
The Performance Team continued to provide a quarterly performance challenge to GFRS. In addition a programme board had been established to look at data management across the Authority, which included GFRS. The service had actively responded and was changing its working method.
Jon McGinty advised the Committee that as a result of the GFRS Audits, there was now a corporate and non corporate financial policy and the learning aspects were being transferred across the wider council including the audit assurance statements.
Members were encouraged by the Fire Service’s approach, it was evident that there was positive and proactive action going forward. Members appreciated the detailed and thorough work being undertaken by Internal Audit. The Committee noted that some systems and processes had failed due to lack of compliance with corporate and local policy and this highlighted the importance of having council wide compliance reviews. The CIA drew the Committees attention to the 2019/2020 audit plan where a suite of council wide compliance reviews had been included as a result of the GFRS findings. The outcomes of these reviews would be presented to future Committee meetings.
In terms of the private use of vehicles and fuel cards, the Committee acknowledged that the reports made for uncomfortable reading and noted the majority of issues were as a result of lack of corporate compliance and local policy. Some members felt that it was unfair that the whole organisation was considered to have poor governance based on GFRS. It was evident that lessons were to be learnt and it was important to have effective financial and human resource controls in place. Members were advised that staff across the council had recently undertaken additional training on financial regulations. In addition, GCC Finance Team now worked more closely with the GFRS Finance Team to ensure tighter financial controls were in place.
The Director of Corporate Resources added that there were challenges for internal audit given the limited resources available to the team and that the audit priorities are required to be based on risk. However, was pleased with the work being undertaken by Internal Audit. Further that triangulation with Corporate Services Managers in one meeting may identify trends, issues and common themes across services and would be undertaken as part of the 2020 / 2021 audit planning process.
Some members felt that whistleblowing had highlighted the Authorities failing when it was too late and that the council should not be relying on whistleblowing to know what the issues were. Members felt that the Authority needed to be self policing and developing a culture to ensure that issues were identified as part of management oversight, challenge, review and monitoring.
The CFO explained that previous leaders had eroded trust and had driven staff to use the whistleblowing procedures. Therefore it was necessary to establish a solid control framework in order to work with staff and develop a strong culture of leadership, whom staff could question without fear of reprisal.
The CFO advised the committee he was surprised at some of the audit findings and that the Fire Service Terms and Conditions of Employment were based on the National ‘Gold’ and ‘Grey’ Book terms and conditions of service. Whilst these conditions of service stated high level principles there was a requirement to have a local scheme which details the operational requirements. These local terms and conditions were currently being developed in full consultation with HR. The CFO advised the Committee that a detailed rota system was now in place. In response to a question, members were advised that there were terms within the gold book which was open to interpretation. It was explained that individuals citied within the report used the gold book terms to legitimate the mileage claimed and paid. As there wasn’t previously a local policy in place, there were no rules in which to govern against.
The Committee noted that the Fire Service was undertaking development work with Human Resources, in an effort to work on good practice. The CFO added that the culture involved processes and people working together and there was no quick fix solution, as this would take time.
The Cabinet Member for Fire accepted there were issues in the past and since appointed to the Cabinet had been actively involved in the new CFO appointment. The Cabinet Member’s goal was to return the service to a respectful status within the Community. It was reported that the CFO leadership team was being enhanced, as the new CFO was alone until recently. The Committee noted that staff morale across the service was beginning to improve and it was very important that staff were not demoralised further. The Cabinet Member urged members if they had any concerns to raise them with him directly.
The CIA explained that follow up reviews would be undertaken during 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 on all GFRS audits where a limited assurance opinion was provided and the findings would be reported to future meetings of the Committee
That the report be noted.