Thursday 14 September 2017

Chaos at the Council - Part 2 - The Audit Committee rerun

In July, an extraordinary event occurred at a meeting of Barnet Council's audit committee. The main purpose of this meeting was to sign off the annual council accounts. I've been writing a blog for over nine years and this has happened every year, without too much fuss. External auditors come in, produce a report that says everyting is shipshape (or not), a set of recomendations is laid out and the committee signs it off. Whilst I may disagree with much of what the political agenda of those running the council do, they are democratically elected. With this is in mind, us bloggers tend to pore over the audit report looking for issues to highlight to residents, demonstrating that the political masters at the council are not doing a very good job. It generally isn't that hard with Barnet Council. This year however, it has all been a bit different. Bloggers have generally not had too much reason to challenge the audit report itself. The auditors are competent professionals. This year, it became clear, as soon as we saw the audit report, that it was incomplete. In short, the committe was being asked to sign off a report that wasn't fit for purpose. At the meeting, the auditors themselves reported a catalog of woe, with information not being divulged, council officers and Capita staff not being as helpful as they would expect and incredibly, a report published by OFSTED detailing how Barnet Council's childrens services was failing had not been included in the scope of the report. Amongst all of this chaos, the committee did the only sensible thing. They sent the report back and asked the auditors to try again, as detailed in our 1st August blog.

Next Tuesday, the committee will try again. Rather suspiciously something went wrong on the council website. The report pack, normally made available so people like me can review it and ask difficult questions, did not appear. My fellow blogger, John Dix, AKA Mr Reasonable, was not impressedand tweeted for clarification.

The reports have now appeared. We have until 10am tomorrow to read them and formulate any questions. So lets start with what the 'rework' found. We have cast a quick eye over the report. Here is a key extract that shows just why a 'rework' was needed.

click for more readable view
It is not trivial, is it? To find that information has come to light that has "reduced net assets and reserves of the Council by £82.348 million and the Group by £89.295 million." is clearly worrying.

We note that the OFSTED report and its damning conclusions are now noted.
Click for a more readable view

One other issue caught my eye. My fellow blogger Mrs Angry may well consider asking the committee a question based on this statement and the information she disclosed in her recent blog

Click for a more readable view

At this point, I must make a pretty worrying admission. In my role as an armchair auditor and a blogger, I feel I am failing you, the reader. As I am sure regular readers are aware, I have a job and business interests. I have limited time for blogging. To write this blog properly, I'd normally have allocated 3-4 elapsed days and perhaps spent 5-6 hours pulling the information together. As public questions must be submitted by 10am tomorrow and I only started looking at this report at 7.30am this morning, I've really not been able to pull together a properly put together blog. It is very much a  "summary blog". I've not had a chance to "do the detail" and "crunch the numbers". In short, by not putting the reports up until Tuesday, the Council has in effect circumvented proper resident scrutiny. 

It may shock you to know that I take blogging about the council and trying to make sure our money is well spent seriously. In light of this, I sent this email to the council and committee chair today.

Dear Ms Lugangira & Councillor Rayner,

I have a request to address the committee for three minutesand three questions for the committee. As I do not wish to “hog” the time, if there are a significant number of questions from the public, please allow other questioners priority, should I have been granted the opportunity to address the committee. If the constitution does not allow such an address, then please treat questions as per other members of the public.

Here is a draft of my address.

“Dear Members of the Audit committee, many thanks for being allowed to address this committee. As I am sure we all agree, this meeting is not being held in ideal circumstances. In light of the importance of the task at hand, I wish to raise a very strong objection to the short amount of time between the posting of the report pack on the Council website (sometime on Tuesday 12th Sept) and the deadline for questions (10am Friday 15th). Like many concerned residents, I have a job and business commitments. This has meant that I have been denied a reasonable amount of time to give proper consideration to the substantial amount of detail in the reports. As a local blogger, who has had the value of their work recognised by former local government secretary Eric Pickles, I take my role very seriously. It is impossible to have proper transparency and public accountability if reports are not given due attention before the deadline for questions can be formulated.  I therefore ask this committee to ensure that all public reports are published a minimum of five working days before the question deadline, to allow due time for consideration. Many thanks for this opportunity to address the committee”.

Q1. The revised report details misstatement. Can the committee explain how such misstatements occurred and what efforts will be made to prevent such misstatements in future.

Q2. At the previous meetig, it was observed by the auditors that Capita staff had not been as helpful as they would normally expect. Why has this observation not been formally documented, as clearly this would add to costs for the taxpayer?

Q3. Can the committee provide details of the extra costs incurred to the taxpayer of having to resubmit this report and restage this meeting and suggest who bears respobsibility for incurring these costs

Roger Tichborne

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