Government to force County Council to publish its audited accounts

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Hampshire County Council’s delayed audited accounts will be forced to be published by September as part of government efforts to clear an “unacceptable” backlog.

Last year, the House of Commons public accounts committee called on ministers to “urgently” address the audit backlog after finding that just 12 percent of public body audits were completed on time in 2022. It said that delays hampered transparency over how bodies like councils spend taxpayers’ money.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said the number of audited accounts still outstanding peaked at 918 in September last year and stood at 771 at the end of 2023.

On February 8th, DLUHC put forward plans to introduce a “statutory backstop” — a mechanism that would force bodies such as councils and fire services to complete outstanding accounts by September 30th, even if external auditors are unable to give them a clean bill of health.

Hampshire County Council’s audited accounts for 2022/23 were expected to be published by September 2023. However, external auditor Ernst and Young LLP, in a letter to the director of corporate operations Rob Carr, said that due to a “complex set of factors”, they were unable to publish the audit.

In line with the Audit Regulations 2015, the county council published a notice saying that it has not been possible to publish the audited statement of accounts and why. The unaudited accounts have been published. However, the audit of the accounts is ongoing, and a draft document was updated in December 2023. That month, the county council was able to submit the audited account for 2021/22, which was also outstanding.

A 2023 report into the timeliness of local auditor reporting by the House of Commons public accounts committee said: “Delays to local audit reduce transparency over approximately £100 billion of local government spending for local taxpayers and their elected representatives, and impact on other areas of government spending, such as the NHS and central government. Delays also increase the risk of significant issues going undetected and unreported until too late.”

According to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, as of October 2023, in the south-east region, the unitary authorities of Southampton and Portsmouth have only published draft documents for the final audit accounts from 2021/22 and 22/23. Similarly, Surrey County Council has not published the final audit accounts for the same years, with only draft documents available.

Other neighbours, such as Slough Borough Council and Surrey Heath Borough Council, have only published draft accounts for 2019/20, with no documents available for later years.

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