IT was revealed at a Cornwall Council meeting last week that cash and valuables belonging to dead people were kept by council officers in their homes and cars. The information came to light during an audit investigation of the local authority’s handling of public health funerals, which was carried out after concerns were raised by council staff.
It found there was inadequate record keeping, no evidence of cash and valuables being handed to the officer responsible for banking and a lack of management oversight and control. The council’s audit committee heard on Friday, November 24 that there was a “high risk” associated with the service.
Public health funerals are provided by local authorities for people who have died and have no next of kin, or whose next of kin, relatives or friends are unable or unwilling to make the necessary arrangements for a funeral. They are designed to protect public health and are important in ensuring that all individuals are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances.
Holly Sykes, chief internal auditor, said in a report to the meeting: “Our opinion is one of limited assurance over the effectiveness of arrangements for managing and delivering public health funerals.” She said the council’s environmental protection team did not have access to sufficient secure storage across council offices to deposit valuables recovered from the homes of the deceased, “which has resulted in assets being stored in officer homes and personal vehicles, posing a risk to the safeguarding of officers in addition to the security of client assets”.
She added: “Record keeping regarding items removed from the properties was inadequate and inconsistent, in particular with regards to Recovered Property Inventory forms. There was no audit trail regarding handover of cash and valuables to the officer responsible for banking. Receipts were not issued and reconciliations for banking were not undertaken. The audit further identified a lack of management oversight and control of, and involvement in, operational procedures, in particular with regards to banking.”
The investigation also found that there had been no performance monitoring of the contract with the council’s chosen funeral director, and the formal agreement between the council and the NHS had not been reviewed since its creation in 2017.
Ms Sykes said: “Our opinion is one of high risk due to the weaknesses in the control environment and the potential for reputational risk to the council. The council is in a position of trust and has a public duty to ensure beyond doubt that its systems and procedures protect residents’ assets. However, the current systems in operation do not provide this level of assurance.”
She told councillors that the audit didn’t find any incidents of fraud or inappropriate behaviour by staff. “We’re very comfortable that everything we found can be acted upon,” she added. Sophie Hosking, strategic director for neighbourhoods, added: “We had concerns that things might not be alright with the service. This is a perfect example of how well audit can work.” She also stressed there was no improper behaviour by officers but the investigation did expose “very poor processes”.
The meeting heard that the problems arose in part due to a rising number of public funerals and the council’s move to working from home rather in offices, which meant a lack of storage and capacity for staff.
Service director Carol Maclellan explained to councillors that officers are able to recover cash and valuables from the homes of people who have died if they are the subject of a public health funeral. It costs the council £5,560 to arrange such funerals and the local authority has to cover its costs.
However, the deceased’s possessions only make up around three per cent of those costs. She added that the majority comes from recovering bank account details or via the executor of the estate.
As a result of the investigation, the council is now going to stop retrieving cash and valuables from homes until suitable measures are put in place. Officers will now wear bodycams when moving through properties to record any cash or valuables found. The details would also be recorded on forms and witnessed by two staff members.
Cllr John Conway asked: “If you go into a deceased person’s property and find five to ten grand kicking around, which isn’t unusual these days, you’re just going to leave it there? If the executor doesn’t cough up for the funeral later on, how are you going to recover the money?
Ms Maclellan added: “We don’t find cash very often, it’s usually details of bank accounts or next of kin. We can secure the property and leave the money as we found it.”
Committee chairman Cllr Armand Toms responded: “If say you found £20,000, a Cartier brooch and a Rolex watch, then you secured the property and went away, and someone broke in, would we be corporately responsible for that?” He was told the council would not liable for any criminally responsible if the property had been secured.
Cllr Laurie Magowan said the lack of management oversight of the service before the audit was carried out was “concerning”. Ms Hosking agreed there wasn’t the proper level of management which was why the audit was carried out and she was now happy with the results of the review.