Top Bristol councillors will get confidential briefings on commercially sensitive information in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the Bristol Energy fiasco.
Three members of the audit committee will be briefed on relevant but legally exempt information related to companies owned by Bristol City Council. The cross-party committee is responsible for providing independent assurance that the council’s governance and risk management systems are working properly.
The change to the way it operates was agreed on Monday (January 25) after members expressed no confidence that the council had learned from the mistakes of Bristol Energy, saying its “passion for secrecy continues”. It is hoped that the briefings will go some way towards avoiding those mistakes with other companies owned by the council, such as its housing development company, Goram Homes.
Bristol Energy lost a total of nearly £50million, including at least £36.5million of taxpayers’ money, before it was broken up and sold last year.
In a damning report this month, the authority’s external auditor found the council’s governance and decision-making arrangements for the energy firm were “inadequate” in its final year of trading.
Grant Thornton made 12 recommendations to improve such arrangements for the council’s other companies, addressing such matters as the sharing of confidential and exempt information, including with the audit committee.
It advised the council to “develop a mechanism to enable the audit committee to be sighted on potential exempt issues within their role and responsibilities and legal duties”.
The recommendation followed the auditor’s observation that the committee were not kept properly informed of the governance and risks related to Bristol Energy in 2019/20 and should have had “closer involvement” with the council’s investment.
But audit committee members were not satisfied with the responses from council management to some of the recommendations in the auditor’s report. None said they were confident their concerns about access to information had been addressed, leaving them worried they would be kept in the dark about the council’s other companies as well.
Green councillor Clive Stevens, the committee’s vice chairperson, said: “The mayor and council are putting more taxpayers’ money into businesses – big ones.
“And therefore, the audit committee needs to be able to evaluate the value for money arrangements.
“It’s even more important because there’ll be much more than £50million at risk. Some of the answers from the council show they’ve learned nothing.
‘Regular, periodic, confidential briefings’
“So this passion for secrecy continues and it continues to cost the taxpayer millions.”
But the committee was assured by Jon Roberts from Grant Thornton, and the council’s monitoring officer Tim O’Gara and director of finance Denise Murray, that there was much more to the council’s response than what was written in the report, and that the council accepted the recommendations and were committed to carrying them out.
At the suggestion of Mr Roberts, and with the backing of Mr O’Gara and deputy mayor Craig Cheney, the committee agreed that three of their number would get “regular, periodic confidential briefings” in future.
The chair, vice chair and an independent member from outside the council will act on behalf of the committee and then engage with members “as appropriate, depending on the issues discussed”, the meeting heard.
Members had reservations about what information would be fed back to them, but the committee chair, Labour’s Mark Brain, said the trio would report back “in short order” on whether the briefings were working. The committee will also monitor the council’s progress carrying out the auditor’s recommendations, work which is set to be completed by October this year and involves a review of governance arrangements.
Mr O’Gara said: “You have my assurance as the council’s monitoring officer, who has a number of the actions against my name, that I welcome the recommendations and I’m keen to work with colleagues and members and officers alike to take those recommendations forward to ensure we implement some continuous improvement around how we govern our council companies.”
Ms Murray said: “We’re actually proposing to roll out the proposed changes and improvements across all of our activity and how we govern all of our companies and how we report the information being proposed.
“We want to actually seek to continually improve how we report information and how we deal with information we deem to be of public interest and those that are critical to decision making.”
Mr Roberts told the committee: “Even though this is a challenging issue, we’ve had very good engagement from the council, from whoever we’ve talked to from within the council, and I have no concerns about the level of openness to my audit team”.