Friday, 17 June 2011

Barnet council - "obviously we are not in a good place"

Barnet council's assistant finance director Maryellen Salter, who wrote the Internal Audit Opinion on Barnet for 2010-11, summed things up well this evening - "obviously we are not in a good place". 72% of the areas of work considered in the audit are run less than satisfactorily. The situation has declined slightly since Barnet's previous audit committee meeting.

Well, that's shit, isn't it? Everyone in the meeting agreed that it's shit. The councillor members of the committee, the two independent members, the chair Monroe Palmer (I'm sorry, I don't do honorifics - not in my own blog, I don't), all the senior officers called to answer questions, the council's internal audit team itself, and the external auditors Grant Thornton all thought it was shit. Certainly the residents present in person and in the Twittersphere thought it was shit.

The question is, what will be done about it? My own question for public question time (which, despite the best efforts of Labour and, to be fair, Palmer, was limited strictly to 30 minutes), concerned who would take responsbility for the years and years of failings? Failings that previous audit committees have sometimes identified, but whose recommendations have made little difference.

I asked the question specifically in relation to the council's relationship with the MetPro security companies. Who decided to take them on? Do we know, will we ever know? How were they allowed to earn £1.4 million from the council in spite of no contract ever being awarded? Why did no one ever check whether they had CRB checks, SIA licences, etc? Shouldn't someone carry the can for this litany of embarassing and potentially dangerous failings?

It is not a question, certainly not on my part, of wanting to see people sacked. I just think that senior officers, heads of departments whose staff were not complying with the council's own Contract Procedure Rules, rules flouted systematically for years, such high-paid individuals should stop being high-paid individuals at Barnet council.

These are often the same people who preach the necessity for cuts to services, smoothe the path for closing libraries, shut youth clubs, cut grants to voluntary organisations, close the musuems, put up charges for social services, put up the charges in the Controlled Parking Zones. All this they do very assiduously.

And at the same time in their very own departments money is being squandered because work is given out on a basis that no one understands to companies that no one monitors. Useless!

The Chief Executive Nick Walkley turned in a particularly cheesy performance, I thought. He criticised the bad culture in the council, how not enough people 'buy into' audit and the lessons it tries to teach the council. The problems of this bad culture went back years, to, oh, as long ago as 2006 (before you were in charge then, Mr Walkley? Yes, we've got the message - you bear no responsibility for any of this).

The Internal Audit investigation that was reported tonight was separate from the MetPro report, and the work for it undertaken long before MetPro came to light. But what chance did its findings have of getting any attention had the MetPro issue not arisen alongside it? Scarcely any, I reckon. Especially given this 'bad culture'.

Committee chair Palmer did his best to make the bloggers and other residents feel welcome at the meeting and I do believe that he has found our questions and work useful. However, he seemed to think that we were only interested in MetPro, which is wrong: MetPro was simply one very egregious example of what is wrong across the board. We know that there is a lot that is wrong across the board.

It's clear audit does not have enough resources to do as much as it needs to do. The MetPro report was almost presented as an unwelcome distraction from the other work of the committee, taking up valuable staff time. That is totally the wrong way to look at things. If MetPro has brought the wider workings of the audit to the attention of more residents, the work we have done has served a very useful purpose indeed! Scrutiny goes on with and through residents, not in spite of them!

Unfortunately, many things that should have come out of tonight didn't:
- no senior officer said yes, I've fucked up; maybe I should go and work somewhere else and you can pay my enormous salary/consultancy fees (in the case of the Deputy Chief Exec Andrew Travers, £1,000 a day) to someone less smug and complacent;

- there is no commitment to put the One Barnet (mass outsourcing) Programme on hold;

- there is to be no inquiry into the neglected aspects of the MetPro scandal, to investigate whether residents were put at risk through the use of this unlicensed company.
However, a number of senior officers had to eat a small slice of humble pie and some of them looked pretty hangdog about it. The senior officers have committed to work very hard at carrying out Internal Audit's recommendations. And a dozen or so residents got a crash course in the wonderful world of audit. Why, we might almost understand more than the leader of the council himself, Richard Cornelius, and his new Cabinet colleagues.

Cabinet member Daniel Thomas did appear to say, in answer to a public question about whether Barnet was in any fit state to go down the road of mass outsourcing, "yes, we are: this audit committee report is fantastic - very timely, it shows us where we have been going wrong. In any case, we have some really great outside consultants (Agilysis) to advise on drawing up the monster contracts we want to offer for running key council services. What could go wrong?!"

Other than Thomas, however, I didn't see any senior Barnet Tory. This is pathetic. You have discussion of a report revealing that the council's own contract controls are in a mess, more honoured in the breach than the observance, and the new council leader can't be arsed to turn up to the meeting? It shows just how seriously the administration takes the recommendations of the committee, and how little pressure, apart from that coming from a handful of residents who have now sat through the whole discussion (and who helped to initiate it), will be put on senior officers to deliver on their promises.

What chance is there that Barnet will become a better place on the strength of this showing?

Here are some choice and alarming quotes from this evening:

Hugh Rayner, Conservative member of cttee: The recommendations seem so fundamental I wonder why weren't they being done already?

Maryellen Salter, internal audit: We can't make management [management, note] do what we recommend. We can only try to inspire people.

Nick Walkley: I agree that too often things go around and around and are not dealt with.

Richard Harbord, independent member of cttee: We can't defend the indefensible. The controls are there, the problem is making sure that they are done.

The problem [MetPro scandal] was found out by error, not by any process of the council. The internal audit can't give any assurance that this is an isolated case.

Nick Walkley: A process of devolution [of decisions on procurement] has gone too far. We need to bring back control. That will require a shift in the culture, which will be difficult for officers. There must be greater levels of direct responsibility for all senior officers.

Debra Lewis, independent member of cttee: It's a shocking report. Question for Andrew Travers and for [external auditor] Grant Thornton whether you are happy signing off the accounts given this big black hole that's been revealed?

Monroe Palmer: How will we audit services that have been outsourced has been a question at past committee meetings. We need to identify how outsourcing is helping or not helping us in internal audit.

Sorry for the long post, but I felt I had to do the content of the meeting justice.

Disclaimer: I am a layperson and writing here sometimes about things that I'm not fully au fait with, so if you don't quite understand something or disagree with something leave me a comment and perhaps we can all become more enlightened together.


Citizen Barnet said...

The Guardian's Patrick Butler has put a piece on his blog this afternoon about the MetPro scandal, the implications for the One Barnet Programme and mass outsourcing generally, and the role of local bloggers in uncovering the scandal.

David Duff said...

Well done, Vicki, a good report. However, do not suppose that this imbroglio is a party political affair. Were Labour in power much the same shenanigans would occur. More attention should be paid to the fact that it seems to be almost impossible to sack a council official however incompetent they prove to be. It would be useful to focus on the contracts given to top officials which always include details of bonuses and pensions but virtually nothing on possible reasons for dismissal or demotion.

David Duff said...

Matt Wardman over at Anna Raccoon's site has a post you may be interested in concerning various councils refusing to co-operate with blogs offering local news services. You are not alone:

Citizen Barnet said...

Thanks, DD. That was an interesting item.

(I think I'll steer clear of 'Naked in Thanet', though.)