Weaknesses and gaps in expense policy framework for offices of speaker, clerk and sergeant-at-arms

B.C. Legislature building. Photo by Rattan Mall

THE Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia has released a new report: Expense Policies and Practices in the Offices of the Speaker, Clerk and Sergeant-at-Arms, in which a number of weaknesses and gaps in the expense policy framework for the offices of the speaker, clerk and sergeant-at-arms were found.

Some policies were in place, but they were not always followed. Travel expenses were frequently made without clear documentation to support the purpose of travel. Some expenses were made without appropriate approval or a clear business purpose and purchases of items, such as clothing and gifts, were made in the absence of policy to guide those transactions.

“We found that there was no specific travel policy for staff and officers of the Legislative Assembly,” said Carol Bellringer, Auditor General. “The practices we observed in this area would not have been allowed in ministries.”

The Legislative Assembly did have a policy in place for the use of purchasing cards. However, the office identified a number of instances where purchasing card practices did not follow the stated policy.

Finally, the office found that there was no effective mechanism for reporting policy violations directly to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC). The issues found could have been mitigated if the Legislative Assembly had clearly assigned responsibility for ensuring that policies are being consistently followed and that any significant or systemic breaches of policy are being reported to an appropriate authority.

“LAMC needs to ensure the administration of the Legislative Assembly sets the bar for controlling, overseeing and ensuring the efficient and effective use of public resources in an organized fashion,” Bellringer said. “To that end, we made nine recommendations to the legislative assembly.”

The office’s practice is to refer any unusual or potentially fraudulent transactions to management, or the appropriate authority, for further investigation. In the course of this audit, no such referrals were made, beyond what is included in the report.

This is the office’s first performance audit report in a planned series of audits on the Legislative Assembly. It was prompted by the speaker’s report, released in January 2019. Upcoming audits in the series will focus on fixed assets, compensation and benefits, governance, and a further look at purchasing card administration and usage across the Legislative Assembly.

The full report is available on the Office of the Auditor General website: www.bcauditor.com.

Statement by Speaker Darryl Plecas:

“My January 2019 report to the Legislative Assembly Management Committee first documented serious administrative issues that came to my attention in the months after I became Speaker. In February, the committee agreed with my recommendation to support a comprehensive financial audit of the offices of the Speaker, Clerk and Sergeant-at-Arms.

“I want to thank the Office of the Auditor General for completing this audit report. The report illustrates that there was a failure of leadership and trust by senior non-elected leadership of the Legislative Assembly. Appropriate and effective polices were not established and policies that were in place were overridden or not applied.

“While I was hoping that a forensic audit would be completed, and that the audit would reach back to 2011 rather than only 2016, I accept and respect that the Auditor General proceeds according to her own mandate and authority. While not a forensic audit, this report is an important contribution and step forward on the path to reform.

“The audit report makes nine recommendations to address policy weaknesses and gaps. The Legislative Assembly accepts all recommendations. The Legislative Assembly Management Committee established a work plan on urgent reforms, and progress has already been made by the committee and the acting clerk on many audit recommendations. On my instructions, new policies on employee travel, uniforms and gifts and honoraria have been explicitly extended to my office. The full implementation of all audit report recommendations will be completed in the months ahead.

“More work is needed to address the remaining issues in my January 21 report, but we are on the right track as we work toward a new governance framework, more effective oversight of Assembly administration and further reforms to administrative policies.

“Sound financial management is a basic expectation of any public institution. As Speaker, I will do my utmost to support increased and much-needed accountability and transparency at the Legislative Assembly.”