Wed, 20 Mar 2019
A COUNCIL blunder meant that £2m was missed off the adult social care budget.
West Berkshire Council’s chief executive Nick Carter conceded that “a series of unfortunate errors” led to the mistake, which caused the service to ‘overspend’ by £2.9m.
However, Mr Carter said that the £2.9m shortfall was not an overspend, as £2m was excluded from the budget in the first place.
The “gross overspend” was debated at a special meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny management commission on Tuesday, February 26.
Mr Carter said that a number of red lights started to flash in summer last year.
He told the meeting: “We are all calling this an overspend, but actually adult social care started the year £2m light of what it should have had.
“It didn’t overspend by £2.9m, it started off with insufficient money in its budget.
“This is not money that adult social care has spent that it shouldn’t have.
“It spent money that should have been in its budget if we had budgeted properly.”
Mr Carter said that the overspend had been reduced to £2.1m “through various measures”, including around £610,000 being released from the adult social care risk reserve to fill the void.
Councillors heard that the demand-led service had overspent in the last three years, increasing each year, and that it struggled to make savings targets.
Mr Carter said that two issues were responsible – errors within the council’s modelling and pressures in long-term services, such as care homes.
An absence of key staff at “a fairly critical time” was also noted.
Questioning the council’s accountability, Ian Morrin (Con, Burghfield) said: “What I hear is ‘oh it’s okay really’.
“Who is responsible for this stuff?
“There’s a huge amount of detail... but I can’t find who is accountable and I guess that’s Nick [Carter] ultimately.”
In response, Mr Carter said: “No, it’s not okay actually.
“Yes, we could say if we built the budget properly we would be in a much better position.
“The reality is the budget was not built properly and that’s not okay.
“Heads of service know it is their responsibility to make sure you know your budget.
“Neither adult social care nor finance picked up that we were £2m light.
“The checks and balances didn’t happen either... we missed out an entire age group.
“Someone should have picked that up in my view.
“There were a series of unfortunate errors that didn’t get picked up.
“People were tasked with putting this in the model and it wasn’t put in the model.”
The council’s portfolio holder for adult social care, Graham Bridgman (Con, Mortimer), said that the council would have been in a far worse position without the new model and “if this budget had been built with £2m in it, it would have had to come from somewhere else”.
Later, he added: “The role of the executive member is not to be down in the discussion.
“I agree that we have not lost sight of it, but because of everything we have had to do to fix what’s going on we have not been able to sit back and have that strategic view.”
When asked if he was comfortable with the state of governance for the service, Mr Carter said: “We need to review who is doing what.
“There’s too much finance and not enough adult social care.
“I’m not comfortable with who is doing what.
“My view is that the service does the homework and finance marks it.”
Disagreeing with the council report saying that there was "too much emphasis on finance managing the process" chairman of the commission Alan Law (Con, Basildon) said: “Finance should manage the process. The service should take responsibility for doing the work and the outcome, but somebody has got to guide them and the guidance is the process and that's by finance.
“In my experience the top man gets down and dirty into the detail.
“Sometimes you have to come down into the trenches and understand the choices that some of the officers are making.
“You can’t leave it to the officers.
“Let’s not add to our complexities by poor budget building.
“I take great comfort in the fact that we have looked at some of the issues and shortcomings and we are trying to fix these going forward and that’s the way we should be looking.”
A working party will look further into the process and make recommendations.
Speaking after the meeting, Liberal Democrat councillor Jeff Brooks (Thatcham West) said: “It’s an error, something that they should know better than to make an error like that.
“They had years and years, so it’s not forgivable.
“Happily for the people of West Berkshire, they didn’t have to find another £2m.”