What gives the Agency its audit powers?
The Food Standards Act 1999 gives the Agency powers to monitor and audit local authorities. The Act provides the Agency with statutory powers to strengthen its influence over enforcement activity and to ensure national priorities and objectives will be delivered. It gives the Agency powers to carry out the following duties:
- set standards of performance in relation to enforcement of feed and food law;
- monitor the performance of enforcement authorities;
- require information from local authorities relating to feed and food law enforcement and inspect any records;
- enter authority premises, to inspect records and take samples;
- publish information on the performance of enforcement authorities;
- make reports to individual authorities, including guidance on improving performance; and
- require local authorities to publish these reports, and state what action they propose in response.
What framework does the Agency's audit scheme operate under?
The The Framework Agreement on Official Feed and Food Controls by Local Authorities is the mechanism by which the Agency puts into effect the powers contained in the Food Standards Act 1999. It provides for the following:
- published local service plans to increase transparency of local enforcement services;
- clear agreed standards for local authority feed and food law enforcement;
- local authority monitoring data used to select authorities for audit where there are concerns over enforcement performance; and
- an audit scheme aimed at securing improvements and sharing good practice.
How was the Framework Agreement developed?
The Framework Agreement, which became fully operational from 1 April 2001, was developed through the Agency's Local Authority Enforcement Liaison Group (now the Enforcement Liaison Group). The detailed content of the Agreement was drafted in conjunction with the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) and a number of representatives from local authorities across the UK. The draft Agreement was subject to a three month public consultation when the views of all local authorities and other key stakeholder organisations were sought.
What are local authorities audited against?
The Agency’s audits of local authority delivery of official controls for feed and food are conducted against the requirements of the Framework Agreement and, more specifically, a section within it called the Standard. The Standard sets out the minimum levels of performance expected in relation to the full range of a local authority’s official controls for feed and food including food hygiene, food standards, imported food and feedingstuffs. The Standard draws together the obligations on local authoritiesarising from legislation,related guidance and codes of practice. This includes local authority deliveryin relation to inspections, sampling, complaints, formal enforcement, promotion and advice to business.
Is it a UK-wide audit scheme?
The Agency's Framework Agreement operates on a UK basis and within this framework the Agency has a responsibility to carry out audits of local authorities across the whole of the UK. However, in recognition of the different audit needs and capabilities of the countries that make up the UK, the framework allows for flexibility in how the scheme is operated.
Who are the Agency's Auditors?
The Agency has audit teams based in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The majority of the auditors are qualified Environmental Health or Trading Standards Officers with many years of experience in local authority delivery of official controls for feed and food. In addition to their auditing role, many of the auditors are also involved in other aspects of the Agency’s work, such as policy development.
What does the Agency aim to achieve from audit?
The aims of the Agency’s audit programme, as set out in the Framework Agreement are to:
- help protect public health by promoting effective local enforcement of feed and food law;
- maintain and improve consumer confidence;
- assist in the identification and dissemination of good practice to aid consistency;
- provide information to aid the formulation of Agency policy;
- promote conformance with the 'Feed and Food Law Enforcement - Standard' (the Standard) and any relevant central guidance or Codes of Practice;
- provide a means to identify under performance in local authority feed and food law enforcement;
- promote self regulation and Peer Review such as Inter Authority Auditing (IAA); and
- identify continuous improvement.
Why is the Agency carrying out focused audits?
Generally audit programmes focus on particular areas of activity covered by the Standard, this enables auditors to carry out a more in-depth examination of specific areas of activity on a more strategic level. Audits may also be carried out across the full range of an LA’s arrangements for food and feed official controls and this may vary throughout the UK depending on the priorities of the audit schemes in the individual countries. In addition to the usual individual audit reports on local authority performance, summary reports of focused audit programmes are produced. These summary reports give an overview of the programme findings, discuss any trends in performance and recommend possible solutions to any issues identified. The summary reports also detail any examples of good practice identified during the audits.
How does the Agency's audit scheme fit in with IAA?
The Agency supports the principle of inter-authority auditing (IAA). As mentioned above, one of the aims of the Agency’s audit scheme is to promote peer review. The implementation of robust and comprehensive IAA schemes carried out against the Standard can provide valuable information about the delivery of official controls by LAs and are excellent tools to effect service improvements, providing any resulting action plans are implemented. They can also help to inform the central audit programme and more specifically the risk-based selection of LAs for audit.
How are authorities selected for audit?
Local authorities are selected for audit on a quarterly basis. Local authorities are selected to represent a cross section of local authority types, for example by county, district, geographical location, and, usually, levels of activity as indicated by the enforcement monitoring returns submitted to the Agency. Selection may be based on other criteria for focused audits, for example liaison group activity on inter authority auditing.
How are authorities notified that they will be audited?
Following initial informal telephone contact with the Authority about possible dates for audit, a letter of notification will be addressed to the Chief Executive of the Authority, copied to the Head of the Food Service. The Authority is allowed five working days to request a change of date.
The notification letter will provide background information on the arrangements and nature of the audit. A Pre-Visit Questionnaire (PVQ) will accompany the notification, the PVQ facilitates the receipt of service information along with contact details for local authority personnel.
How much notice do local authorities get?
In the case of a full audit, local authorities will be notified by letter about three months prior to the audit. For focused audits the notification period is usually one or two months. These notification periods should enable local authorities to collate the necessary documents required by the PVQ and ensure appropriate staff and facilities are available.
What does the PVQ cover and why do local authorities need to complete it?
The PVQ requests information on the areas of the service being assessed during the audit. For a full audit this includes all aspects of feed and food law enforcement activity covered by the Standard, while a PVQ for a focused audit may only require information on certain parts of the service. Generally speaking, the PVQ will ask for information on staffing, copies of relevant procedures and details of different types of recent enforcement activity, for example inspections/interventions carried out, food sampling, formal enforcement taken. The PVQ will also ask for an audit liaison officer to be identified (or possibly more than one for a Unitary Authority), to act as the primary contact for the auditors during the on-site audit. The auditors will review the PVQ information prior to the audit and use it to prepare for the on-site audit. The pre-audit information is crucial in ensuring that a comprehensive and effective on-site audit can be carried out.
Is there further communication from the Agency after the PVQ has been submitted and before the audit?
Yes. Approximately a week before the audit, the Agency will write to the audit liaison officers to confirm the arrangements for the on-site audit. This letter will include a provisional timetable for the audit and a list of files and other documentation, such as training and qualification records, which we will need to be made available at the beginning of the audit. The timetable and file lists will be based on the information supplied in response to the PVQ. In this letter we'll also ask for a separate room to be made available for the duration of the audit for the auditors to carry out file checks, examine the authority's database and interview staff. An accompanied visit to a recently inspected food/feed establishment may also form part of the audit, and if so the lead auditor will also discuss these arrangements beforehand.
What can local authorities do to prepare for the audit?
A number of documents that might help you to prepare for the audit are available. These include:
- the reports of audits carried out by the Agency to date
- the audit protocols and checklists used by the auditors (these will be tailored for focused audits)
- the The Framework Agreement on Official Feed and Food Controls by Local Authorities.
You may also wish to discuss the audit in your local liaison group and particularly with any authorities in the group that have already been audited by the Agency.
What does the on-site audit involve?
The on-site audit will vary depending on the size of the Authority and whether a full or focused audit is being carried out. In most cases, the audit visit lasts between one and three days and there will always be a minimum of two Agency auditors. Where enforcement is delivered from a number of sites, the duration of the audit may be increased to reflect this. The on-site audit will include:
- an opening meeting with relevant Authority representatives as decided by the Authority, including Members at the Authority's discretion, to address the scope, objectives and arrangements for the audit, including agreement of the timetable. This meeting also provides the Authority with the opportunity to raise local issues that may affect the food service
- an assessment of the implementation of the documented policies and procedures drawn up to meet the requirements of the Standard by examination of database and paper records and the completion of audit checklists
- discussions with local authority staff
- verification visit (reality check) to a food business premises on some audit programmes;
- interim feedback sessions with the audit liaison officer as the audit progresses
- a closing meeting with relevant Authority representatives, again including Members at the Authority's discretion, where the auditors will provide a summary of their initial findings and will detail the reporting and follow-up arrangements
The audit timetable is necessarily very intensive. This enables the auditors to make the most effective use of the time on site, gathering sufficient information to ensure an accurate picture of the authority's performance from the sample of records examined and officers interviewed. The on-site part of the audit is also very intensive for the audit liaison officer who is expected to be available for the duration of the audit to receive feedback and provide any necessary clarification, for example by providing additional documentation or database reports. While the auditors will attempt to adhere to the agreed audit timetable, there will always need to be a degree of flexibility to reflect any unforeseen circumstances, for example problems with access to the database. However, the auditors will try to ensure that they adhere to the times agreed for staff interviews and reality check visit, to minimise the impact on service delivery.
What sort of feedback can local authorities expect during the audit?
The audit timetable, which is agreed with the audit liaison officer, includes specified times during the audit for feedback. The feedback given to the audit liaison officer during the audit will be very detailed, providing specific information on any issues identified from reviewing the authority's procedures and during the file checks. This will be the most detailed feedback the auditors will give and we normally suggest that the audit liaison officer should take detailed notes to enable them to follow up on specific issues and provide the auditors with any additional information that might clarify matters. Feedback will also be given at the audit closing meeting in the form of an overview of the audit findings. This feedback will only provide a brief summary of the key audit findings.
What happens following the on-site audit?
Within 20 working days of the audit, the auditors will draw up a detailed draft report of findings with a covering letter indicating any policy concerns raised at audit and action taken. The local authority will have 20 working days to identify any factual corrections or comments on the drafting of the audit report and return it to the lead auditor with a draft action plan to address any non-conformances. The audit action plan will need to detail the improvement planned in response to each recommendation and the timescale in which this improvement will be achieved. The Agency would aim to publish the final report, including the agreed action plan, as soon as possible, subject to any further discussions between the auditors and the local authority on the content of the report or the action plan.
What does publication of the report entail?
The agreed report and action plan will be e-mailed to the Chief Executive of the local authority. We also always ask that the report is brought to the attention of the relevant council Members. Copies will also be sent to Local Government Regulation (formerly LACORS), the British Library, the Copyright Library, the Libraries of the House of Commons and House of Lords, the Food Standards Agency Library and, in the case of the devolved administrations, any other appropriate bodies.
The final report will then be published on the Agency's website. A press release, containing the comments made in the Executive Summary of the Report, may be issued to the local press within the Authority's area. Where this is the case, the Authority will be given advance warning that a press release will be issued.
Is there any long-term follow up?
In most cases, six months after the publication of the final report, a letter will be issued by the Agency to the Head of the Authority's Food Service to check progress on implementation of its action plan. Where appropriate, the Authority will be asked to provide copies of any documentation developed or amended to address a specific action point. In some cases the auditors may decide to revisit the Authority, normally only for one day, to review implementation of the action plan.
Revisits will only normally be undertaken where it is difficult to carry out a desktop assessment of compliance with a recommendation. For example, the development of a procedure required by the action plan could be subject to a desktop assessment, whereas a requirement relating to the need to keep comprehensive records of food law enforcement activity would need to be verified through file checks.
Once the implementation of the action plan has been reviewed an updated action plan, revised to reflect the progress made, will be published on the Agency's website.
If the Authority has fully implemented its action plan the Agency will write to the Chief Executive, and send a copy to the Head of Food Service, to confirm closure of the audit and this will be reflected on the Agency's website.
What if the authority disputes the audit findings?
The Agency's auditors will attempt to resolve any disputes on the audit findings either on site or when agreeing the draft report. However, if this process does not resolve the issue then a more formal process of correspondence between senior officials in the Agency and the local authority will be initiated. The process for handling disputes is set out in the Framework Agreement on Official Feed and Food Controls by Local Authorities.
Can local authorities feedback comments on the audit scheme?
A customer satisfaction questionnaire is despatched to the local authority with the final report. The questionnaire facilitates feedback from local authorities on the whole audit process. The results are used to inform policy and feed into reviews of the audit process. Authorities are asked to give open and honest feedback on their experience to enable the audit process to be improved. A number of improvements have already been made on the basis of comments received.
What are the benefits for local authorities?
In addition to the aims of the audit scheme above, the audit process also provides local authorities with an opportunity to raise the profile of their service delivering official controls for feed and food law, both in the Authority and with other stakeholders. The Agency is aware of a number of examples where the report issued following the audit has been used to support a claim for additional resources, to ensure no reduction in the current level of resourcing or simply just to highlight with council Members the good work being carried out. There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Agency audit process has helped to promote greater sharing of feed and food law official controls documentation and working practices between authorities.
What has the Agency done to disseminate good practice identified during the audits?
Since the audit scheme was launched in April 2001, a number of documents, for example service plans, enforcement policies and work instructions, which have been viewed as good examples for other authorities have been identified. More recently, the inclusion of focused audits in the programme has further facilitated the identification of good practice examples. The good practice identified for the focused audit programmes, with relevant local authority contact points for further information, disseminated and highlighted through the Agency’s Regional Team. In addition, ‘Making Every Inspection Count’ guides, which provide a summary of good practice identified from the relevant audit programmes, are published on the Agency’s website.