So off I trundled to the Barnet Council Audit Committee earlier this evening. Due to other commitments, I could only stay for 1 hour. To be honest, I only bothered going to give my fellow bloggers Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry moral support, as they had asked a few questions. Lord Mustard also attended. I expect this to be the best blogged meeting in the history of Barnet Council and it's audit committee. As I sloped off early, this account will doubtless be the worst and least comprehensive. I also video'd the public questions for posterity and also managed to capture a rather comedic moment (which I will post over the weekend to cheer you all up). So these are my notes from the part of the meeting, where I wasn't videoing and wasn't skiving off (approx 7.30pm - 8pm).
The committee were reviewing the external auditors report from Grant Thornton. It kicked off with one of my favourite Tory Councillors, Brian Schama asking a very good question. I like Schama. he's straightforward, plain talking and sensible. If I had to have a Tory Councillor in Mill Hill, Brian is the one I'd pick. He actually does the job, which is what we all want (isn't it?) and does it in a reasonable and decent manner. I suspect that if his colleagues were all like him, there wouldn't be a famous five bloggers. His question "Now we have a system for vetting contracts, can we be assurred that all new contracts, apart from emergency ones, where there is no time for proper vetting and which there should be an exception procedure for, will be 100% compliant with Barnets rules?" And the answer was? Well it was extremely long, three people answered it and at the end, no one was any the wiser. It was "Yes of course, that is the target, but..."
Hugh Rayner, who is also a reasonably useful committee member drew attention to the fact that the auditors used terms like "Reasonably good, quite satisfactory" a lot. They never said "outstanding or marvellous" Why was this Hugh asked (he could have asked a few bloggers who were sitting in the audience and we'd have told him for far less than the rate Grant Thornton charge). The auditors replied rather diplomatically "We said this, because this is how auditors describe things". Barnet Council officer Maria Christophou (excuse any misspelling) chipped in "of 19 categories in the report, 16 have been flagged as green and only 3 amber, that speaks volumes" with pride. She seems to think that it is OK that three of the audit criteria being at risk is something to be proud of. If my car had an MOT and they said 16 categories were fine, but the brakes were at risk of failing, the tyres were nearly bald and the subframe was in danger of collapse through corrosion , would you buy the care from me? Sorry Maria, boast about it when 19 categories are green. If three are at risk, then over 15% of the criteria is not working properly and that is a major failure.
Then there was a question about budget performance. Why was this amber? The man from audit stated that this was because they had underspent £49.5 million on the schools infrastructure budget. This is a scandal. Barnet is struggling to find places to accomodate our children and educate them, yet they have £49.5 million sitting in the bank, because they are to incompetent to organise the work. This money hasn't been cut or saved, it just hasn't been spent on allocated projects, because the council is too useless to get its act together. If you are a parent with a child about to apply for a school place, bear this in mind.
A question was asked about One Barnet. The man from Grant Thornton made a stunning revelation, which nobody (apart from me apparently) seemed to pick up on. "There is no such thing as "The One Barnet project" there are just lots of different outsourcing projects lumped together under the name. The One Barnet project is really many projects, each with a different objective and outcome". Various bloggers have commented that One Barnet may have a name change. It seems that Grant Thornton have a better idea, abolish it all together and replace it with lots of Mini Multi Barnets. Lord Palmer said he opposed One Barnet, but it wasn't his job to make the decision. He then said he could run the Council far better than the current administration. Everyone in the room laughed, some ironically, some mockingly and some (like me) because for all his faults, he's probably right. Then again Kermit the frog could probably run it better than the current administration.
Geof Cook asked a question was asked as to why only contracts greater than £25K were on SAP, and why the contract register was on an excel spreadsheet, wouldn't it be better if all contracts were on SAP, so there wasn't duplicate entries. The man from Grant Thornton said "I'm always in favour of efficiency". Cook asked if having two systems, meant twice the errors. Head of Audit, MaryEllen Salter replied, that you'd get the same rate of errors if you only had one system. I flet like saying that you'd have twice as long to check it though, so more chance of getting it right, but we the public merely watch like goldfish.
The last question I heard was from Geoff Cook. He asked about the parking fiasco and the 7% drop in revenues. Lord Palmer pointed out that the audit report only went up until September, before the fiasco was implemented. Geof Cook suggested it would be good if the audit committee could get involved before things went completely tits up. Lord Palmer suggested this was actually quite a good idea and that maybe they could have more meetings. A certain council officer rolled her eyes and had the look of someone who'd rather be eaten by crocodiles.
And that my friends, is the point at which I bade everyone a fond goodbye.
When I got home, I received an email from a friend who stayed. It was entitled "Whitewash" and simply had the text "What can you say".
Indeed. We have video'd the meeting. Strangely, its only when I watch this again that I realise the full terrible truth of what Barnet Council really is like. watch this space