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BRISTOL: Auditor defends Bristol Energy report

BRISTOL: Auditor defends Bristol Energy report

Stock photo of a gas hob flame

The author of a damning independent report into Bristol Energy has responded to comments by the deputy mayor which seemed to question its findings.

Jon Roberts, partner at the city council’s external auditors Grant Thornton, defended the accuracy of his value-for-money report, published in January, which criticised how the local authority made decisions about its failed energy company.

He spoke at a council meeting following a podcast in which deputy mayor for finance, governance and performance Cllr Craig Cheney said the report was not necessarily a “fair reflection” of his private conversations with mayor Marvin Rees and other cabinet members.

Cllr Cheney said in the interview with The Cable in November that the auditors, who ruled the governance arrangements for Bristol Energy were “inadequate” and that the Labour cabinet was not properly informed before ploughing more money into the loss-making firm, could not possibly know what happened behind closed doors.

Councillors have branded his comments “ironic” because Grant Thornton had recommended improving record-taking of private cabinet discussions.

The energy business lost up to £43.8million of council taxpayers’ money and never made a profit before being broken up and sold in 2020, with what remains still being wound up through a members’ voluntary liquidation.

Mr Roberts told Bristol City Council audit committee he would “reflect” on what the deputy mayor said, although he had not yet heard the interview or read a report on it.

He said: “What I would say is we do follow a process to try to ensure factual accuracy of our work.

“We consult with [council] officers. We have several meetings with officers where we work through the drafts of our report to ascertain whether those reports are based on fact, and that is a really important part of what we do.”

Mr Roberts told the meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, November 23, that because he was unaware of exactly what was said he could not comment on what Cllr Cheney had intended to say.

But committee chairman Lib Dem Cllr Gary Hopkins said: “It raised some quite serious questions.

“Some aspects of this caused me concern. It seemed to question the independent auditors’ report which, given the circumstances, should be a concern to the audit committee as a whole, not a party political matter.

“It said the auditors were unaware of conversations that had taken place between the executive member [Cllr Cheney] and the mayor.

“That is part of the point that there was not a proper record of some of the important conversations and discussions.

“This brings into question whether the lessons have been fully learned and it’s our job to make certain that happens.

“Officers have gone out their way to say they have listened and are changing procedures but if the executive member is questioning the auditors, I have concerns.”

Conservative Cllr Jonathan Hucker told members: “The auditors produced a list of recommendations on how procedures should be improved and the comment does not seem to accept that those recommendations were valid and should be implemented.”

Labour Cllr Marley Bennett said the deputy mayor had made a fair point that it was impossible for auditors to be aware of private conversations.

“They wouldn’t be available at public meetings, so we don’t know what these conversations were. That is a fair point to make,” he said.

Cllr Hopkins said: “Yes, the auditors pointed out there was no record of some conversations, that there should have been a record of exempt discussions, so it is a little ironic.”

Green Cllr Katy Grant said members needed to understand if the comments were intended to “undermine or reject” Grant Thornton’s recommendations, and the committee agreed to write to Cllr Cheney for clarification.

Speaking on the Bristol Unpacked podcast last month, Cllr Cheney, the authority’s shareholder representative, said: “All that Grant Thornton have access to are the public meetings.

“What they don’t have access to are the conversations that me and Marvin and the cabinet may have in private session. So it’s impossible for them to know, really.

“And there were some lessons in [the report] about how we minuted meetings, and some of that stuff we’ve taken forward, but I don’t think that was necessarily a fair reflection.

“What that really meant was that ‘in the public cabinet meeting when you discussed it, you didn’t explain x, y and z’.

“But what they did point out was that because public meetings were exempt, they were not able to see them and we hadn’t minuted those meetings.

“So some of that stuff was actually mentioned in the publicly exempt meetings because we are very thorough and we have a legal team that goes through these things in advance.”

When the auditors’ report was published in January, Mr Rees said: “Decisions were made appropriately with eyes open to the issues and risks, so it is frustrating that this wasn’t as well-evidenced in the records as it could have been.”

Meanwhile, it was also revealed at the audit committee meeting that a review in the summer of the entire governance structure of the authority’s wholly owned businesses, which include Bristol Waste and Goram Homes, had recommended disbanding their holding company, Bristol Holding.

But it was decided to keep it for now amid concern about scrapping it before the outcome of the City Leap procurement was known, and with it the future of fledgling council firm Bristol Heat Networks.

The author of a damning independent report into Bristol Energy has responded to comments by the deputy mayor which seemed to question its findings.

Jon Roberts, partner at the city council’s external auditors Grant Thornton, defended the accuracy of his value-for-money report, published in January, which criticised how the local authority made decisions about its failed energy company.

He spoke at a council meeting following a podcast in which deputy mayor for finance, governance and performance Cllr Craig Cheney said the report was not necessarily a “fair reflection” of his private conversations with mayor Marvin Rees and other cabinet members.

Cllr Cheney said in the interview with The Cable in November that the auditors, who ruled the governance arrangements for Bristol Energy were “inadequate” and that the Labour cabinet was not properly informed before ploughing more money into the loss-making firm, could not possibly know what happened behind closed doors.

Councillors have branded his comments “ironic” because Grant Thornton had recommended improving record-taking of private cabinet discussions.

The energy business lost up to £43.8million of council taxpayers’ money and never made a profit before being broken up and sold in 2020, with what remains still being wound up through a members’ voluntary liquidation.

Mr Roberts told Bristol City Council audit committee he would “reflect” on what the deputy mayor said, although he had not yet heard the interview or read a report on it.

He said: “What I would say is we do follow a process to try to ensure factual accuracy of our work.

“We consult with [council] officers. We have several meetings with officers where we work through the drafts of our report to ascertain whether those reports are based on fact, and that is a really important part of what we do.”

Mr Roberts told the meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, November 23, that because he was unaware of exactly what was said he could not comment on what Cllr Cheney had intended to say.

But committee chairman Lib Dem Cllr Gary Hopkins said: “It raised some quite serious questions.

“Some aspects of this caused me concern. It seemed to question the independent auditors’ report which, given the circumstances, should be a concern to the audit committee as a whole, not a party political matter.

“It said the auditors were unaware of conversations that had taken place between the executive member [Cllr Cheney] and the mayor.

“That is part of the point that there was not a proper record of some of the important conversations and discussions.

“This brings into question whether the lessons have been fully learned and it’s our job to make certain that happens.

“Officers have gone out their way to say they have listened and are changing procedures but if the executive member is questioning the auditors, I have concerns.”

Conservative Cllr Jonathan Hucker told members: “The auditors produced a list of recommendations on how procedures should be improved and the comment does not seem to accept that those recommendations were valid and should be implemented.”

Labour Cllr Marley Bennett said the deputy mayor had made a fair point that it was impossible for auditors to be aware of private conversations.

“They wouldn’t be available at public meetings, so we don’t know what these conversations were. That is a fair point to make,” he said.

Cllr Hopkins said: “Yes, the auditors pointed out there was no record of some conversations, that there should have been a record of exempt discussions, so it is a little ironic.”

Green Cllr Katy Grant said members needed to understand if the comments were intended to “undermine or reject” Grant Thornton’s recommendations, and the committee agreed to write to Cllr Cheney for clarification.

Speaking on the Bristol Unpacked podcast last month, Cllr Cheney, the authority’s shareholder representative, said: “All that Grant Thornton have access to are the public meetings.

“What they don’t have access to are the conversations that me and Marvin and the cabinet may have in private session. So it’s impossible for them to know, really.

“And there were some lessons in [the report] about how we minuted meetings, and some of that stuff we’ve taken forward, but I don’t think that was necessarily a fair reflection.

“What that really meant was that ‘in the public cabinet meeting when you discussed it, you didn’t explain x, y and z’.

“But what they did point out was that because public meetings were exempt, they were not able to see them and we hadn’t minuted those meetings.

“So some of that stuff was actually mentioned in the publicly exempt meetings because we are very thorough and we have a legal team that goes through these things in advance.”

When the auditors’ report was published in January, Mr Rees said: “Decisions were made appropriately with eyes open to the issues and risks, so it is frustrating that this wasn’t as well-evidenced in the records as it could have been.”

Meanwhile, it was also revealed at the audit committee meeting that a review in the summer of the entire governance structure of the authority’s wholly owned businesses, which include Bristol Waste and Goram Homes, had recommended disbanding their holding company, Bristol Holding.

But it was decided to keep it for now amid concern about scrapping it before the outcome of the City Leap procurement was known, and with it the future of fledgling council firm Bristol Heat Networks.

Words: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter


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