Publication: How the Accounts Commission holds local government to account

January 18, 2024 by Accounts Commission

How the Accounts Commission holds local government to account

 

Blog: By Allan Campbell, Secretary to the Accounts Commission

From the performance of your local council to a wide range of nationwide services and broader issues such as climate change, the Accounts Commission reports in public on the services that impact you every day. The Commission is here to hold local government to account and help services improve.

The Accounts Commission is often referred to as Scotland’s local government watchdog. Central to its purpose is providing independent reporting on the performance and finances of councils and other local public-sector bodies in Scotland. It provides assurance and reassurance to the public that the organisations delivering a wide range of vital local services are well-run, are financially stable and achieve value for money.

As well as scrutinising individual bodies, the Commission also publishes Scotland-wide overviews of councils and Integration Joint Boards (which run local health and social care partnerships), and reports on specific services like education and housing, as well as cross-cutting themes such as climate change and tackling poverty.

The Commission’s powers

The Controller of Audit is the person with lead responsibility for reporting on the audit of local government in Scotland. The Controller has the power to produce a report for the Commission – known as a section 102 report – at any time on any specific issue of concern; the Commission can also instruct the Controller to report to it.

The Controller’s powers under section 102 are also used for the Commission’s ongoing series of Best Value reports on each council in Scotland.

On receiving a report from the Controller of Audit, the Commission can do (in any order) any, all or none of the following:

  1. direct the Controller of Audit to carry out further investigation
  2. hold a hearing in public
  3. publish ‘findings’ – a statement of the Commission’s view and any expected actions.

The Commission will often choose option 3, and its findings are usually published alongside the Controller’s report within 2-3 weeks of the meeting. Option 1 is used occasionally, mostly for reports other than Best Value reports; hearings are relatively rare.

Meeting in public and private

It is vital to the purpose and integrity of the Accounts Commission that it meets and reports in public. Anyone is welcome to watch the meetings in person or online – find future meeting dates and details of how to attend on our website.

However, there is a need for the Commission to strike a balance between being open about the decisions it makes, and ensuring that, in making those decisions, members are able to have candid and robust discussions about sensitive matters. To enable this to happen, the Commission decides for each meeting whether to discuss some items in private.

Therefore, with any report from the Controller of Audit, the Commission scrutinises the report in public, including asking questions of the Controller and other staff involved in the audit work that underpins the report, before deciding in private how it wishes to respond.

The Commission is not unique in this approach, which is fairly standard practice across many scrutiny bodies. For example, Scottish Parliament committees usually take evidence in public before considering that evidence and agreeing the contents of reports in private.

Background - Public audit in Scotland

It might also be helpful to explain the roles of, and differences between, the three bodies that are involved in public sector audit in Scotland:

  • The Accounts Commission is responsible for the audit of the accounts and performance of councils and other local government bodies.
  • The Auditor General for Scotland is responsible for the audit of accounts and performance of all other devolved public bodies in Scotland
  • Audit Scotland is Scotland’s national public sector audit agency, and delivers services to the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General.

You’ll often see Audit Scotland’s name on publications and communications, but it is the Commission and the Auditor General that have the statutory powers and responsibilities. Many Scotland-wide reports on particular policy areas are produced jointly, as they involve and are relevant to both local government and other public bodies.

If you’ve any queries or would like to find out more, please email acsupport@audit-scotland.gov.uk.

Allan Campbell, Secretary to the Accounts Commission