The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has announced the introduction of new rules requiring councils to publicise the right of the public and press to inspect councils' detailed financial accounts, ledgers and records.
Under the changes announced to the Accounts and Audit (England) Regulations 2011, councils will be required to highlight the public's opportunity to inspect their accounts on their website, in addition to the existing requirement to notify the public of their rights through the local press.
Local authorities are already required to open their accounting records for public inspection and challenge over a set time period each year. However, in the government's opinion, the public often do not realise that these rights include "all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts related to them", which effectively enable them to check any spending under the £500 online transparency threshold without the need to submit Freedom of Information Act requests.
The revised Accounts and Audit (England) Regulations 2011 now include the following notification requirements:
- the period during which the accounts and other documents will be available for inspection
- the place at which, and the hours during which, they will be so available
- the name and address of the auditor
- the right to make objections at audit; and
- the date appointed for the exercise of rights of electors.
As soon as reasonably possible after conclusion of an audit, a larger relevant body must give notice by advertisement and on its website stating that the audit has been concluded and that the statement of accounts is available for inspection by local government electors and including:
- a statement of the rights conferred on local government electors
- the address at which and the hours during which those rights may be exercised; and
- details of where the statement of accounts can be found on the body's website
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said: "An open Government is vital for good democracy and that's why councils have to open their ledgers to the public - everyone has a right to know how their taxes are spent.
"But it's not enough to just publish them quietly, armchair auditors and local journalists need to know exactly where to find that information and these new changes will make sure they are not just out in the open but under the spotlight too.”
At the same time, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a relaxation of accounting rules for many smaller public bodies such as parish councils by raising the threshold above which they are required to provide comprehensive accounting and audit details from £1m to £6.5m. The DCLG estimates that the change will benefit around 100 smaller authorities.
Pickles said: "We have also cut the red tape for the smallest councils. For too long they have been hostage to the most complex demands from Whitehall, eating into time and resources they could have used to deliver for their community, whilst maintaining robust safeguards on the spending of public money."
The full regulations can be found at: www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/817/contents/made