Tuesday 19 September 2017

Chaos at The Council Part 3 - The Audit committee

Tonight I spent two and a half hours at the Barnet Council Audit Committee. Let's start at the end. All of the motions were passed. The accounts were signed off by the committee.  In fact some Tory Councillors were proud of them.

So you may conclude everything was tickety boo. But oh, if life were so simple, which it isn't. As regular readers will know, this particluar "special" meeting was a result of the previous meeting being concluded in chaos. At that meeting, the external auditors highlighted the "problems" completing the report, due to Capita not providing the information in a timely and concise fashion,. They had also not been informed about the awful OFSTED report in an appropriate fashion.

So today was part 2. Prior to the meeting, I had a conflab with fellow Barnet bloggers, Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry. We had asked questions and asked to address the committee. We'd received written answers to the questions we'd posted and discussed the various deficencies with the answers

Committee chair, Hugh Rayner opened proceedings with a rundown on meeting protocol. Then he did something none of us bloggerrs expected. He gave a short speech in which he laid into the way Capita had approached the audit. He commended the auditors for the way they had dealt with the issues.He stated that they had been too focussed on the journey and not the outcome. The report was not thorough in the outcomes department. A review was being undertaken, which would hoghlight what was needed to put humpty dumpty back together again.

Reading over my notes, there is quite a scary scenario being spelled out by the auditors.

The key highlights.

* Austerity is breaking the council (and every other council). Reserves are being dipped into, but come 2020 we face armageddon unless Central Govt changes the funding formula.

* Capita would pay the council around £55,000 towards extra costs incurred as a result of their failure to support the audit.

* Re/Capita were in dispute of a £4.6 million payment to the council. This was deemed "non material" to the audit outcome. Councillor Rayner asked Capita to acknowledge the amount. Mr "Dally" from Capita refused and simply "acknowledged the dispute"

* The Auditor felt that the council was one of the worse clients for "preparation of accounts" but not the worst.

* Councillor Finn was clearly not listening when the auditor from BDO stated that the accounts were qualified for "use of resources" due to the OFSTED audit. He specifically said in his speech at the end that the acounts were fine and "not qualified".

* The Auditor stated on several occasions that Barnets method of outsourcing was "unusual". Councillor Mittra suggested that we'd been promised Capita would be marvellous at reporting, the man from BDO looked at his shoe and refused to be drawn "There is one council that are on our books that are much worse". I was reminded of a friend who bought a Ford Anglia with a blown head gasket and my Dad advised "Well if you can find one with a good lump in a scrapyard and you know how to fit it, you'll probably have got a bargain".

The question I asked re what was being done to ensure this didn't happen again had received a non answer. I pointed this out. It turned out that the answer from the Section 151 officer was slightly misleading. It stated a plan would resolve all of the issues. When I asked why they hadn't seen the plan, they revealed that this wouldn't be ready till November, so it is clearly too early to claim it would resolve anything.

Any sane person, who hadn't fallen asleep for the duration of the meeting would be rather alarmed. After the meeting, I had an informal, off the record chat with Comittee Chair Hugh Rayner. I quite like Hugh, unlike certain other Barnet Committee chairs, he is respectful to the public. Hethanked myself and Mr Reasonable for our questions and said that it was helpful (Mrs Angry had departed earlier). It was a pleasant change and I suspect that some of the younger whippersnappers could learn something from this approach. Cllr Rayner is one of the better committee chairs. He seems to be keen to do the job properly and expressed some candid and very sensible view privately afterwards. The purpose of  the audit committee is to provide scrutiny. The job of the chair is important and Cllr Rayner discharged it seriously and with an appropriate level of humour and gravitas. I would commend Councillor Hutton and Mitra for some excellent questions. I do hope that cllr Rayner has a quiet word with Councillor Zinkin. He has not covered himself in glory throughout this process. For some reason he seems determined to cast himself as the "Capita Champion" and clearly does not understand his job.

As for Councillor Finn. I like Tony. He's a decent chap in many ways, however his summing up was bizzare. One attendee, who shall remain nameless, suggested that he simply uses the same speech every year. Maybe as an accountant, he simply wanted to say some nice things. Sadly it was inappropriate given the car crash. It was a very different car crash to usual. The chair is not in denial. Once you get past the BDO auditors soothing tone, you really should be rather worried.

The one thing we all need to be aware of is that come 2020, unless central government eases its austerity program, nothing that bloggers, councillors, auditors or Council Officers can do will save us from the mother of all budget crises. Given that the government is barley functioning and riven with splits, I can only see huge tax rises and savage service cuts. This is regarldless of the party in charge.

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