Petworth town council told to improve ‘woeful’ financial affairs

C141057-1 Pet Council phot kate SUS-141125-165835001
C141057-1 Pet Council phot kate SUS-141125-165835001

PETWORTH town councillors are arming themselves with new training after their affairs resulted in damning criticism from an internal auditor.

A series of improvements are being brought in to their way of working which the auditor told councillors would bring their affairs ‘into the 21st century’.

Concerns were expressed when former clerk Jean Huggett retired earlier this year and new clerk Rebecca Knifton took over.

Internal auditor Rob Martin was called in by Trevor Leggo, chief executive of the Sussex Association of Local Councils (SALC) who asked him to carry out a ‘forensic examination’ of the records available and report the findings to the town council.

His report dealt with concerns over whether the town council’s governance and control procedures were ‘adequate and compliant with the relevant laws and regulations’ and what improvements could be made to them.

Setting out his concerns in his report Mr Martin said: “Petworth Town Council has not organised its financial affairs to a level that its council taxpayers deserve and should expect.

“The councillors have allowed the clerk to run the financial and probably other procedures without sufficient effective oversight.”

He said town councillors must ensure that ‘enough internal check is introduced into the procedures of the council to enable them to be able to truthfully sign the annual return’.

He added: “There is never any guarantee that things will not go wrong, but the number of unacceptable matters I discovered in this examination was greater than I have experienced before.”

He said as an ‘absolute minimum’, standing orders should be introduced.

In addition, the council should have financial regulations. These two documents should be used to ‘properly conduct business’.

Formal orders should be placed for all work and services and these should all be accounted for. New signatories for council cheques should be arranged and the clerk should never sign them.

In addition, town councillors should regularly witness and verify as correct, bank reconciliations.

An internal auditor should be appointed with access to councillors rather than just the clerk and an audit plan should be agreed.

Mr Martin said an assets register should also be drawn up and everything council-owned should be properly insured.

“The insurance policy details were not included in the papers brought to me. I do have worries however that the parish council might be under-insured.

He concluded: “The town council’s procedures were woefully inadequate and the suggested course of action will improve this when they are implemented.”

The improvements detailed in his internal audit report, would, said Mr Martin, ‘bring the town council into 
the 21st century and provide the assurance that its council taxpayers deserve and expect’.

He added: “There are still unanswered questions, but there is no evidence of impropriety.”

Town council chairman Chris Kemp told the Observer: “We have organised training sessions for town councillors and as it stands now, the council is getting itself up 
to speed on how it is expected to operate.”