Friday, 17 June 2011

Metpro Scandal - Barnet Council, a model of openness, decency and transparency

The blog I am about to write will probably shock regular readers - Please sit down before reading - This is not a full report, it just gives you a flavour of the atmosphere.

Tonight, the Barnet Council Audit committee, under the chairmanship of the ubiquitous Lord Palmer, met to discuss the report into the Metpro Scandal. Had a friend from Mars, who had never experienced the workings of Barnet Council before attended, he would have been mightily impressed at the way we do business in Barnet.

Let me set the scene. Of all the various committees in Barnet Council, the Audit committee is probably the dryest, most technical and dullest. It is the only chair which is occupied by an opposition councillor (to ensure a degree of fair play). The meetings are long and rather unexciting. Generally members are sent there because the leader doesn't like them (or because they are accountants who enjoy such jobs). On a good day, one or two members of the public may turn up (one of which is ex Councillor Daniel Hope). Tonight was different.

Tonight the public gallery had maybe 35 people in it, including most of the Barnet bloggers. It started with Lord Palmer praising the efforts of Citizens and bloggers. Without them the scandal would not have been uncovered. Now whilst Lord Palmer isn't the worlds most charismatic chairman, he tried to give lengthy and detailed explanations. He promised to provide written copy of answers, he answered a couple of extra questions. My Martian friend was impressed at such a diligent and decent chair. Then the head of audit presented her report. No punches pulled. The whole system of managing contractors in Barnet is a mess. It doesn't work (or at least there is no evidence that it does work). My Martian friend commented that on his planet such things were hushed up. Then Brian Schama, a Tory Councillor asked his questions. They could have not been more peircing. A whole bevvy of lefty bloggers burst into spontaneous applause when he finished. My Martian friend commented that on Mars, the politics are partisan. He was most impressed. Councillor Hugh Rayner, another Tory asked if the details of questions would be made public. More applause. Hugh Rayner said that he wasn't an expert, but seemed most upset that such a damning report could be written about his council - Such concern for the taxpayer and the openness of the process. My Martian friend commented that in his council on Mars, councillors treated taxpayers with contempt.
John Dix, AKA Mr Reasonable addressed the committee for five minutes. He ran out of time mid sentence. Lord Palmer graciously allowed him to finish what he was saying. Councillors from both the Tory and Labour groups asked him sensible questions. The independent member of the committee spoke, again making complete sense. My friend from Mars was even more impressed. This Barnet Council is a model of openness, decency and transparancy he commented.

After approx an hour and a half of unending scathing comments about the Council, I had to leave. The meeting went on for at least 2 more hours. I must applaud Councillors Palmer, Schama, Cook  and Rayner for doing their very best to conduct the meeting with decorum.  Unlike many Barnet Council meetings (which my Martian friend hasn't attended), the public were treated with respect. There was no attempt to prevent the public from filming the meeting and the public were acknowledged for their positive contribution to Barnet.

The audit committee announced that it was not their role to instigate disciplinary proceedings. That is batted back to the Council officials, who have to discipline themselves and their peers. At long last the Councillors of Barnet get it. The system doesn't work. No one seemed more unimpressed than Brian Schama. The questions he asked could have been written in this blog by yours truly. The Audit report shows failure and negligence. It revealed that many of the important issues couldn't be answered. It wasn't clear whether this was due to negligence or conspiracy. I do wonder whether the answers may be more forthcoming under Police caution.

So what has Lord Palmers audit established. Perhaps the most important thing for me is that it has shown that Barnet Council can conduct it's business without insulting, patronising or haranging the public. It shows that the public are interested. Then there are a couple of minor, subsidiary issues.

It shows that the Council processes are not up to the job of managing the existing contracts, let alone a whole new swathe in the One Barnet Process.

And the least important thing that was said all night was a throwaway comment by Lord Palmer. He said that Barnet Councillors have 3 auditors as permanent staff plus another 1.5 people available from outside firms. This for a business with a £1 billion turnover and 220,000 people who deal with it. Lord Palmer saidthis was hopelessly inadequate. Of the 100's of suppliers, they were only auditing 10 !!! They had to pull staff away from other vital work to do the Metpro audit. In short, they do not have the manpower to prevent fraud, abuse and incompetence. As I said, a nice meeting where nothing much happened.


Rog T said...

For the absence of doubt, there is a degree of sarcasm in one or two of my comments above, toward the end of the blog

baarnett said...

Thanks for the report, Roger.

YOU might have had a companion from the Planet Mars, but Mrs Angry and Vicky had one from the Planet Crunchie, to judge from Twitter comments.

Would someone independent attending have thought that MetPro was a very special case, or merely one of many that had the misfortune of publicity by the bloggers of Barnet?

Jaybird said...

It was clear that the Audit Committee did not think MetPro was an isolated case - as the internal audit showed.

Mrs Angry said...

ahem: as one of the bloggers who stayed the whole FOUR hours and nearly passed out from hunger, and an overdose of council process, I have to comment that you have missed the major point, which is that despite a veneer of decency (thanks to the admirable efforts of Lord Palmer) and a load of hand wringing, NO ONE has taken any responsibility other than in a very vague way, no one is being held to account, and the senior officers who are paid vast amounts of our money to preside over an open, honest and efficient management of the finances of this borough have failed spactacularly but still retain their jobs. If any ordinary officer of the council had f*cked up in this way they would be kicked out immediately. Furthermore, there is no investigation into the admitted possibilty of fraud, the issue of the data protection breaches, and worst of all, the appalling fact that the safety of children at risk being supported by council social services, and vulnerable adults in council run hostels, have been put at risk by regular contact with illegally operating security staff who were not CRB checked. This is not going to be investigagted, we are told, because 'there have been no complaints'. I am sure that any reasonable person will think that this is a completely unacceptable response, and must be challenged.
More later on my blog.

Rog T said...

Oh Mrs Angry, how wrong you are. I have personally taken full responsibilty for the matter and intend to make sure that all of the findings of the committee are dealt with in the appropriate manner.

Lord Palmer stated that it was not the role of the Audit committee to deal with disciplinary matters. It is correct that committees should follow their brief. We now need to ensure that whoever is responsible gets their arse into gear.

I am sure my fellow bloggers (yourself included) will also take full responsbility. I promise to take full disciplinary action against myself if I fail to persue this matter to the bitter end

Jaybird said...

One of the moments you missed Rog. The Internal Audit gave the Treasury Management dept only limited assurance. That would be the department that gambled with £30 million of council money. Apparently they are still not quite sticking to the rules (a priority 2 or significant concern), which was not accepted by Nick Walkley. However, the main problem is that they keep all the Council's bank details on unencrypted laptops which they then take off site.