Reasons to be cheerful have been few and far between for Shetland Islands Council in recent years but today the words “Thank you” could not be said often enough in the town hall during a love-in with old enemy Audit Scotland.
The outbreak of mutual congratulation was over the council’s first set of unqualified accounts for seven years and the banishing of the monkey that now appears to have been on its back quite unnecessarily all these years – the grouping of Shetland Charitable Trust’s accounts with the council’s.
Thanking everyone involved, Audit Scotland’s assistant director David McConnell told the audit and standards committee that having the qualification lifted was “very significant” for the local authority and “an excellent result” for it.
Audit manager Carol Hislop of Audit Scotland, so used to scolding the council for its error-strewn accounts and financial ineptitude, was delighted not to be making yet another negative statement to councillors. She said not a lot of councils managed to get their accounts in before the deadline and their standard compared “very favourably” with those of others. She praised the “major achievement” by staff at the finance department and thanked them for their patience in dealing with the audit team over a long period of scrutiny.
As well as the council’s accounts being in almost perfect order – and delivered before the deadline – its pension accounts were similarly top notch in Audit Scotland’s eyes.
With a set of beautifully polished accounts for all to admire for once it was possible to forget for a few moments that there is a £35.7 million hole where the reserves were raided last year to subsidise massive overspending.
Councillor Billy Fox said it was “very heartening” that the accounts were getting a clean bill of health. But he wondered why the inclusion of the published accounts of the charitable trust could not have been done many years ago, avoiding all the strife and bad publicity for the council in recent years.
He said it seemed to have been made into a big issue and elevated to an importance that it never really had.
Ms Hislop agreed, saying that said she had tried to tell the council that over the past two years. She did not really understand why the council had made it such a major issue.
Councillors and finance officials who did make it into such a big deal are now mainly gone from the scene. The issue is likely to disappear even further over the horizon with the overhaul of the charitable trust which will see just seven councillors sitting as trustees instead of up to 22, placing trust business much further away from the local authority and lessening Audit Scotland’s interest in the trust’s affairs.
The public face of this spectacular U-turn is new finance director James Gray, drafted in from PricewaterhouseCoopers six months ago and the clear favourite if councillors were to stage their own Saviour of the Year Award at Christmas.
He said Audit Scotland had endured a very difficult time working with the SIC in the past but this time his finance team had done “an absolutely excellent job”. He thanked Audit Scotland and his staff, singling out in particular Neil Sneddon and, for her work on pension accounts, Ruth Wood.