Saturday 30 January 2016

Barnet Council - brewing a perfect storm

What is the most important committee at Barnet Council?  Here is the full list. Which do you think?

Committee structure


Commissioning/Theme Committees

Area Committee and Residents Forums

Other Committees

 Of course all of them perform important work. Some are symbolically important such as the Annual council committee, but in truth all the work is done elsewhere and that is purely rubber stamping. Some such as the Urgency Committee sound fascinating, but a review of their meetings shows that there isn't too much that is urgent in Barnet.
  In my opinion, the most important is the Audit Committee. Whilst all of the commitees presumbaly serve important functions, the whole process is underpinned by Audit. Ultimately this is the committee where everything is monitored and if things go wrong, this is the commitee that is supposed to safeguard the council and ensure that the processes and checks are in place to detect the problems and then to ensure that these work.

In the period that I've been writing this blog, there has been three chairs of the committee. By convention, this post was always held by an opposition councillor. The first was Wayne Casey. Wayne was an extremely effective chair and was held in high esteem by councillors of all parties. Wayne was a Lib Dem and stood down in 2010. He understood the audit process and worked extremely hard with the committee to make sure that the council was properly run and the committee did its job. He was replaced by Lord Monroe Palmer. Lord Palmer had a background in audit. He had several highly challenging events during his period running the committee. Perhaps the most difficult was the Metpro scandal. I attended the hearings and spoke at the meeting. Although the general view was that the internal inquiry was not what was required, Palmer ensured that a good job was done and the outcome was credible. Palmer ensured that the public were treated with respect and their concerns were listened to. He recognised that the people of Barnet were rightly upset withw hat had happened and appreciated the fact that many of them had turned out to ensure that the council dealt with the issue.

You will see from this clip that Lord Palmer gave respect and consideration to the questions from the Barnet Eye.

Lord Palmer recognised that the issues were serious and the questions needed proper answers.

After the 2016 election, Barnet Council changed tack with their policy towards the audit committee. Lord Palmer chose not to seek re-election. The Conservative administration abandoned the previous policy of appointing a well respected opposition councillor, who would clearly carry the respect of all and appointed Conservative Councillor Brian Salinger. The choice was odd not only for the abandonment of the previous policy of appointing an opposition figure. It was odd because the policy of appointing a well respected councillor was also abandoned. Salinger is not at all respected in the Conservative ranks. Until 2006, he was the Leader of the Council. Then the Tories deposed their own leader shortly after the 2006 election. Despite being a senior councillor and convention being that such figures are given the role of Mayor, this has been denied to Salinger on numerous occasions by his own colleagues. The attitude of the local Tory councillors to Salinger was summed up by this tweet posted by former Tory whip Brian Coleman in response to a tweet by a local Labour councillor.

    1. Why oh why have the Tories moved Cllr Salinger to sit next to me. What did I do to deserve this.
  1. MIke, Lynne Hillan and I used to threaten any errant Tory Cllrs with having to sit next to Salinger,

It is not only the local Tories and Labour who find Salingers acerbic wit a tad too acidic at times. Fellow Barnet blogger Mrs Angry asked Mr Salinger for a message to Barnet residents regarding library closures. She got the following response.

Meet Tory cllr Brian Salinger, Chair of Barnet's Audit Committee ...
Embedded image permalink

 When it comes down to it, an effective committee chair has the respect of his colleagues and those he represents. Respect in todays society is earned not simply bestowed. I was on the receiving end of Mr Salingers lack of manners on Thursday night. I had submitted a written question to the committee as follows.

In the attached response to an FoI response, Barnet Council have stated that the CAFT team have performed no electronic surveillance of individuals or staff in the year 2014-2015 and only performed physical surveillance of one person. In light of the recent announcements about fraud in the council, it appears that given the amount of outsourcing and the opportunities for fraud in the council, that this is a remarkably small amount of monitoring. What assurance can the audit committee give the people of Barnet that the correct level of checks and controls are in place to ensure that there is no fraud and no corruption occurring within the council. With the huge sums being paid to suppliers and contractors, what measures have been enacted to ensure that all tenders and awards are correctly monitored and managed? How serious or credible can the councils stated commitment to zero tolerance of corruption and fraud really be, if the CAFT team are performing zero electronic surveillance of suspected breaches?
I received a complete non answer as follows.

CAFT operate in accordance with the council’s counter fraud framework manual, of which one of the policies is the ‘Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) Policy Statement and Procedure - Directed Surveillance’. This is approved by the Audit Committee.
The policy states that authorisation for surveillance will only be granted if necessary and proportionate. The consideration of proportionality includes determining whether the proposed conduct is proportionate to what it seeks to achieve and whether it is excessive in the overall circumstances of the case.  Consideration must be given as to whether the information sought could be obtained by less intrusive means. Authorisation for directed surveillance can only be granted where the Council is investigating particular categories of criminal offences. 

CAFT also operate under an anti-fraud strategy and annual work plan both agreed by the audit committee.  They are a responsive and proactive anti-fraud service and as such respond accordingly to referrals as well and proactively reviewing high risk areas and conducting joint reviews with the internal audit service.

The primary responsibility for the awareness, prevention, detection and deterrence of fraud, corruption, bribery lies with the Chief Officers. This responsibility includes ensuring that staff and partners are aware of both the implications of fraud across their service area. The primary responsibility for the investigation of any suspected fraud, corruption or bribery lies with the CAFT.  However whilst the primary responsibility rests with Chief Officers, all staff have a responsibility for reporting suspected fraud corruption or bribery. 
This anti-fraud strategy demonstrates and supports the Council’s commitment to a zero tolerance approach to fraud, corruption, bribery and other irregularity including any Money Laundering activity.  
This was simply one of a series of questions about the function of the council. All received very bland non answers. In the days of Casey and Palmer, such answers would not have been accepted by the chair. The chair did their homework and ensured that the public were engaged. Salinger has a different view. I first came across him when he was chair of the local health authority and was in the process of closing Edgware General hospital. It became clear to me then that Mr Salinger was a man who has a very high regard of his own abilities and a lesser view of the general public. Over the years, I've seen scant evidence to support his evaluation of his own talents. He isn't a man who sees a lot of value in engagement with what he regards as plebs. I attended the Audit committee to ask a follow up question. I wasn't 100% sure that the council had understood what I was asking, as their answer may have waffled at length. I assumed, based on my previous experience of chairs of the committe that I would get a fair hearing and be given the opportunity to explain that I felt the answer was unsatisfactory.

Salinger was having none of it. Whilst he was clearly happy with a lengthy, waffling answer from the council, he clearly felt that residents should not waste his time. Now I wasn't in the best of moods. Having had a hospital procedure for cancer the previous Friday, I really didn't want to be there at all. Having dragged myself along, the least I would expect is a couple of minutes to ask a question and get my point across.

The report that was being discussed was full of scathing information. Here is one such piece of information from the Internal Audit progress report.

Appendix C: Internal Audit Effectiveness

Indicators Performance Indicator                           Annual Target           End of Quarter 4
% of recommendations accepted                            98%                        98%
% of recommendations implemented due in quarter  90%                        69%

In short, the council has missed its own target for implementation of audit recommendations by over 20%. There was scant debate of the subject. I had the feeling that the chair simply wanted to get through the business for the evening and go home. Now you may think "well what sane person would want to sit through such a boring discussion". However as chair of the committee Salinger gets an extra £15,000  year allowance. For this he has to chair four meetings a year. So as far as I am concerned, the least he could do is give proper regard to the issues raised.

Here is a list of the key findings detailed.

There are three priority 1 and seven priority 2 recommendations.

- Contract Registers – Delivery Unit contract registers did not reflect all contractual relationships exceeding £5k in line with the requirements of the CPR. Responsibility for the maintenance of this level of contract register rests with Delivery Units. (Priority 1)

- Conflicts of Interest – Procurement declaration of pecuniary interest forms were not completed at the start of each procurement exercise in line with the Officer Code of Conduct. (Priority 1)

- Vendor creation and approval – We noted 6 out of 25 instances where vendors were created in Integra without the approval of CSG Procurement officers. Our expectation is that a vendor should not be created in Integra without prior scrutiny, challenge and endorsement by central CSG Procurement. (Priority 1)

The following other issues were noted:

- Procurement method - CPR compliance - We noted 4 out of 34 instances of vendor spend exceeding CPR £10k thresholds without evidence of the required quotation exercise. (Priority 2)

- Procurement method - waivers – The detailed e-mail audit trails of the Legal clearance and reasoning/assessment around the legality of waivers were not consistently retained by Delivery Units for referral and scrutiny where necessary. (Priority 2)

- Training – The Re procurement lead and her manager had not attended CSG Procurement training. It is expected that all officers with a procurement role, including external Delivery Units procuring on the Council’s behalf, should attend training on Council procurement processes. (Priority 2)

- Contract repository and procurement documentation – We were unable to identify key procurement documentation, for example contracts and DPRs, in the contract repository/folders for 4 of our sample of 30 vendors evident on the spend analysis provided by CSG Procurement. (Priority 2)

- Authorisation and acceptance of procurements – DPRs for the award/acceptance of 2 vendors out of 19 tested were not found. (Priority 2)

- Contract and contract value limits – Contract details such as the contract reference, contract value and contract term, were not consistently reflected in Integra for referral where necessary (Priority 2)

- Transparency Code – The quarter 1 data set “Barnet Contracts Register Q1 2015-16” published on the Council’s website did not include all contractual relationships above £5k as required by the Council’s Transparency Policy. (Priority 2)

There isn't time here to go through all of the questions raised in the reports, that I felt were not properly answered. What was clear was that the committee glossed over many of the areas that needed detailed discussion. We have been here before. Many of the weaknesses described were exactly the same issues as raised in the Metpro report. I was sat next to John Dix (AKA Mr Reasonable), and we had a strong feeling of deja vu.

What was noticably different was that wheras under Lord Palmer there seemed a desire to fix the issues and reassure the public, under Salinger it is more about getting home in time for the ten O'clock news. If the staff and Capita chiefs are not going to get a grilling from the committee then the level of work will be slapdash. There are a whole raft of issues bubbling up. We suspect that over the coming months, readers of the Barnet blogs will be hearing quite a lot about various things. We think "Project Chicago" may be the hot story of 2016.

But as I mentioned on Thursday, that is for another day. I am not really feeling like digging too deep today. But tomorrow is another day. What I can say is that without an effective audit committee and without an efefctive and respected chair, in our commisioning council, we are heading into a perfect storm.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

Yes: spot on. Imposing a Tory councillor instead of an opposition member as chair is the worst possible thing they could have done: which is why they have done it.

And 'Project Chicago' ... hmm. Let's wait and see, shall we?