Miscommunication is a big word and that is just as well for West Dunbartonshire Council and Audit Scotland since it covers a multitude of sins.
Cover-up or cock-up? You know the sort of thing. It goes back to the trenches in the First World War when a soldier is said to have told his mates: “Send three and four pence, we are going to a dance.”
They misinterpreted this to be: “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance.”
And the Tommies went over the top. Fortunately, nobody died due to that miscommunication on the battlefield.
But a miscommunication means that hundreds if not thousands of council taxpayers will feel the impact of a loss of £2 million for local public services in the next financial year. Well, £1.9 million actually.
This will mean more austerity cuts from Cllr Jonathan McColl and his SNP colleagues – not to mention the rogue Independent Bailie Denis Agnew, who keeps them in power – to gleefully slice from council’s cash cake, which is really no more than a dry soda scone for the deprived. And a plain one at that.
Audit Scotland have apologised for their error and this embarrassing issue is being quietly hushed up by the Council’s own communications department.
Do not expect to see any press releases about this matter any time soon. That’s not the kind of spin they spend around £500,000 a year of public money on in West Dunbartonshire.
What happened was this. The Council’s management team, who have lost and squandered many £ millions over the past three or four years – dare we mention the word procurement here? – are said to have worked with Audit Scotland to restructure loans as part of an effort to balance their books in February.
It allowed them to close the budget gap without the usual annual service cuts – let’s not call them ‘management adjustments’ as the SNP are apt to do – and endeavoured to improve the situation for coming years.
Things would not be so bad if that was what actually happened.
After all, there will be an election in May and the SNP councillors and their loyal officials are desperate to keep their plush offices and gold-plated pensions plus those comfy seats in the £17 million Burgh Hall.
Not to mention [for just some of them, of course] living high off the hog with council contractors at Cameron House Hotel and golf course and some of Glasgow’s fine dining restaurants, where T-bone steaks and exotic fish dishes can be scoffed and washed down with champagne and the finest Spanish wines. They picked up the tab themselves, of course.
There would be no chance of this reaching press or public ears either since Cllr McColl had dispensed with that possibility by banning and boycotting The Democrat, which had a fair inkling of where the bodies were buried.
There were to be no stupid grass preservation schemes or anything else that might alert the electorate to the fact that the SNP plus Bailie Agnew were the most inefficient council ever in West Dunbartonshire.
A basket case forever hovering on the edge of special measures being brought in by the government.
There was one scandal in the offing though which had to do with a blunder by the relatively new Health and Social Care Partnership, but that too was being kept firmly under wraps with the assistance of the Lennox Herald, whose out of town lawyers wouldn’t let them touch the story.
They must have considered it too good to print.
That has been an ongoing disgrace, but who cares if the Council or the Health Board or whoever ruins a few lives? It keeps the establishment happy and the cash coming in.
Then, out of the blue, came the Covid-19 pandemic.
That brought worrying revelations from the council-owned Crosslet House care home in Dumbarton where more elderly residents than should have had died from the virus.
And then the BBC’s excellent Disclosure programme told the world that, as the death toll rose exponentially across Scotland, some of the Crosslet residents had been issued, unknown to them or their relatives, with DNR – Do Not Resuscitate – notices.
O me miserum. Who was handling this bourach? Where was the council leader? It was rumoured he had become the new Tartan Pimpernel, hiding under the bed until the thunderstorm blew over. Or was he shielding?
Or maybe up Stirlingshire way having a pint with his old pal Derek Mackay, who was lined up to succeed FM Nicola Sturgeon until he fouled the SNP nest over another scandal involving a teenage boy.
However, Cllr McColl did surface in time to muck up the preparations for West Dunbartonshire Council’s plans to get the children back to school as early as possible. He has no love for the trade unions.
Dunce’s cap as per usual for Jonathan then.
What about the £2 million? Audit Scotland realised they were giving the wrong advice to West Dunbartonshire Council and the excrement hit the Expelair. They moved quickly to correct their mistake.
Though it was no more than a small change in terminology and accounting, a “miscommunication”, it still reduced the money available for services to the council by £1.9m.
Since the council budget was already passed, the council was – and still is – losing more £ millions in revenue from the services it provides – smoke alarms for old folk, that sort of thing – and had to spend several £ millions more, currently estimated at £6.5 million, to meet the community’s needs during the pandemic lockdown.
Here we are sitting through these long summer days with all that money being shuffled around like coppers at a card school while hundreds of families are living on foodbanks and handouts. It makes you proud to be a Dumbartonian, does it not?
Not much council cash went on PPE for care homes, not initially anyway. And agency staff were waltzing in and out of Crosslet, while one council home care worker died after contracting the virus.
The final accounts for 2019/20 would normally be submitted in June, but have been delayed until August because of the challenges faced by the council.
At the council meeting last week, Audit Scotland told councillors that a portion of their debt efforts should be treated as a “change in accounting policy”.
The accounting agency had agreed with council officers to the plan in February, then discovered that they treated other councils differently.
Councillors asked how Audit Scotland could get their advice “so wrong”. WDC’s chief finance officer, Stephen West, said the advice given to them was “miscommunication when we asked the question”.
He added: “That was unfortunate.”
Deep sighs of relief all round then from the SNP councillors – and Bailie Agnew, of course.
With a bit of luck, the Bailie would still be able to hang on to his gold chain of office, which is out of date and meaningless, and his enhanced stipend, which helps to pay the Brasso bills.
Richard Smith, from Audit Scotland, told the meeting: “All I can do is apologise it is [has been] so late in clarifying the position, but that’s where we are.”
Councillor Diane Docherty asked: “Have we sent a complaint to the auditors, and can we? I think it’s a very serious issue.”
But council chief executive Joyce White said there had been a letter from Audit Scotland on June 17 dealing with the situation.
Ms White did not reveal what was in the letter though. She said: “We did have a very thorough discussion and I felt it was important we had some record of the situation. My view was there was no requirement to further progress this.”
Which also seems to have been her view in regard to the procurement scandal.
A new council motto comes to mind: Whatever you do, do nothing.
Cllr Docherty replied: “I will accept that.”
However, the ever vigilant Councillor Jim Bollan, of the Community Party, said: “This is another piece of shoddy work from Audit Scotland and I hope they bring changes so other local authorities don’t fall into the same trap.”
He added: “The SNP budget for 2020/2021 lies in tatters as a monumental mistake by Audit Scotland.
“The Council’s External Auditors have left the budget short by around £2m.
“This could result in more cuts and job losses from the SNP Council on top of the services and jobs they have already cut.
“This is the same Audit Scotland who did not cover themselves in glory in the part they played during the recent fraud and corruption scandal to hit the SNP Council, where no action of any description was taken against any individual.
“The Council is already over budget by £6.5m to date because of Covid-19, the Health and Social Care Partnership is £9m over budget.
“This additional £2m due to an error will leave the black hole even deeper.”
In a statement after the meeting, a spokeswoman for the council refused to speak to The Democrat but she told another journalist: “The sum formed part of the reserves which were used as part of this year’s budget.
“Originally the auditors agreed with the council’s planned accounting treatment which would have generated a revenue reserve from the loans fund review.
“Updated advice is that this should be accounted for in a different way and therefore the resulting revenue reserve is no longer available and impacts on our previously agreed 2020/21 budget by £1.9m.
“This advice is now consistent with that provided by Audit Scotland to other authorities.”
And that, dear readers, is how local government works under the SNP in West Dunbartonshire in the 21st century Scotland.