[This will be a joint presentation from SEB Leads to the panel]
Claire Nye, Director of Finance, explained that this was going to be a joint presentation with other colleagues. The aim of the presentation on the theme of Our Money was to provide the panel with an update on work areas within its remit done in response to the Covid 19 crisis.
The Director of Finance briefly outlined how the Council responded at start of the crisis, a review on learning and future plans for managing the crisis during the recovery period.
The Director of Finance outlined the key priorities related to Our Council Scrutiny Panel and the focus on adopting good practice and having the right financial controls across the Council to enable it to respond to the crisis. An important part of this work was to continue to exercise good financial discipline only spending where there is budget and authority allowed throughout the crisis, despite the need to make decisions at speed.
The service was also responsible for managing the different Government grant allocations awarded to the Council and using this information to prepare a budget.
The Director of Finance reassured the panel that all spending decisions followed correct procedures and also new financial systems were introduced to manage service budgets and to support colleagues. A regular financial update was produced for colleagues across the Council and a financial tracking system was introduced.
The Director of Finance commented on the different challenges facing the service during the crisis, while also ensuring for example, the service continued to provide a normal range of transactional functions and support, for example payment to suppliers.
The Director of Financial detailed the financial support offered to businesses and residents during the crisis.
Charlotte Johns, Director of Strategy, introduced the Our Data theme part of the presentation to the panel. The Director of Strategy briefed the panel about the work of data and insight performance team and ICT service. The Director of Strategy highlighted the importance of making evidence-based decision at the heart of the Council’s response to the Covid 19 crisis.
The Director of Strategy advised the panel that an Insight and Performance Lead was appointed to the every Covid 19 workstream, for example, Stay Safe Be Kind Helpline, Business Grants to develop robust mechanisms needed to capture data which was used to inform future planning. The work involved developing dashboards to visualise data in an easy and accessible way to enable the Council to better understand the impact of Covid 19 on different parts of City. The analysis of evidence was also used to inform recovery plans and the development of the Relighting Our City document published on 16 September 2020.
The Director of Strategy explained the work done to better understand the impact of Covid 19 on council employees and also on residents, and from the economic view. The work was done to check that the Council was effectively responding to the impact of Covid 19 and also planning our effective recovery approach to support business as usual activities.
Charlotte Johns, Director of Strategy, introduced the Our Technologytheme part of the presentation to the panel. The Director of Strategy advised the panel of the work done to support the rapid introduction of arrangements to support mobile working such as Microsoft Teams and ensuring employees had the right devices and services.
The findings from a ‘life in lockdown’ survey of employees reported that that 60 per cent of employees had never or rarely previously worked at home, which gives an indication on the scale of rapid introduction of systems to support agile working.
There are a number of key Covid-19 work streams and ICT was integral in helping deliver key systems to support the Council response such as the Stay Safe Be Kind hotline. In addition, work was done to provide a secure infrastructure and network for employees working from home. The Director of Strategy advised the panel that the service had been externally accredited to show that it had effective cyber security. The service is continually to roll out key infrastructure projects and ICT and digital service improvements.
Julia Nock, Head of Assets, introduced the Our Assets theme presentation. The Head of Assets outlined the work done with colleagues across different service areas during the early stages of the pandemic to ensure council buildings were safe to access and to support the Council's wider Covid response.
The Head of Assets detailed the health and safety checks done to ensure council buildings would be able to open safely, for example, legionella testing. The service provided reassurance other council buildings were safe to use, including those buildings that remain closed. The Head of Assets outlined the work to done to comply with current and future safety requirements to reduce the risk of disease transmission, for example, reviewing cleaning specifications across all buildings.
The Head of Assets outlined the support given to commercial tenants with "rent payment holidays" to assist with financial pressures arising from the lockdown in business who have either not been able to open or operating on much lower levels of customer footfall.
The service is undertaking security and compliance checks for all buildings, whether they've remained open or closed throughout the lockdown which will continue going forward.
David Pattison, Director of Governance, introduced the Our People theme presentation and advised the panel that at the start of the pandemic there was a commitment from the Leader and Chief Executive to provide continued reassurance that employees jobs were safe, and their pay would be protected.
The Director of Governance praised the response of employees to support residents and local businesses in the setting up of the food distribution hub and the stay safe be kind helpline.
The Director of Governance commented on the important work to communicate changes with employees and managers and to keep them safe in challenging circumstances. There is a recognition that some employees working from home may also need other support and the focus on employee wellbeing.
The Director of Governance explained the plans for the re-opening council services and added that a risk assessment would be done to keep employees safe. Employees would be consulted about the working arrangements. The Director of Governance advised the panel that individual risk assessments have also been done to consider other risk factors, such as age, existing health issues, family circumstances to get a better overall picture of an employee needs.
The Director of Governance commented on the redeployment policy and work done to support people who were not able to undertake their existing duties during the lockdown.
The Director of Governance commented on the offer of local testing and the ongoing work to consult with trade unions on developments.
David Pattison, Director of Governance, introduced the Governance theme outlined the work done to ensure that all decisions were properly authorised using existing delegations or a formal decision. The Director of Governance commented on the introduction of new ways working such as remote meetings with a focus on making sure that the Council was doing the things in right way with a formal signoff under the Coronavirus Act.
The Director of Governance that there is a now a full calendar of remote meetings scheduled for the current municipal year. The panel was advised that when Annual Council was postponed the original post holders remained.
The Director of Governance advised the panel that a protocol for making urgent decisions was developed. All decisions made under the authority given to the Council are recorded and then shared with all Councillors as part of the regular weekly communication to keep them updated. The risk registers of Covid-19 is now produced alongside Strategic Risk Register to show a proper audit trail for all actions and justifications including evidence supporting these decisions.
Claire Nye, Director of Finance, commented on the new working arrangements in place as part of the Council recovery plan and gave a summary of the key priorities and specific areas of future work linked to each of themes.
The panel thanked each of the presenters and members were invited to comment or ask questions about the presentation. The panel queried a press report which stated that £200,000 of business grants had been fraudulently claimed in Wolverhampton and that investigations were ongoing, and more information sought.
The panel asked for an explanation about how this might have occurred, while accepting that any grant giving body is at risk for fraud, and any lessons that have been learnt to reduce the risk of this happening in the future. The Director of Finance responded that the issue itself was highlighted in a report presented recently to the Audit and Risk Committee. The report detailed the financial controls in place to prevent potential fraud arising from the award of government grants.
The Director of Finance offered to present a copy of the same report to the panel to review progress. The Director of Finance advised the panel that the figure quoted is an estimate of the risk of potential fraud based on the number of claims and offered reassurance about the financial checks being used to prevent this. In some situations, people who have claimed a grant have been asked for provide further information to support their application, without there being any implication of the claim being fraudulent.
The panel welcomed the report.
The panel agreed to note the presentation.