Friday 23 November 2018

The Friday Joke (and a little matter related to Barnet)

Image result for teenage drivers joke
Teenage Drivers
First of all apologies. This is three blogs in one. The first is our regular Friday Slot, the Friday Joke. If that's all you want, don't read the second bit. The second bit is my reflections on last nights Audit committee. The third is a short note concerning the current situation with the bins. I had a beer with one of Barnets dustmen in the Bridge last night. It is worth a quick look

I would normally write three seperate blogs, but as today is Black Friday, things are pretty chaotic at Mill Hill Music Complex. We are overrun with people taking advantage of our 15% off offer on musical instruments, so I'll have to dash.....

1. The Friday Joke

A teenage boy had just passed his driving test and inquired of his father as to when they  could discuss his use of the car.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
His father said he'd make a deal with his son: "You bring your grades up from a C to a B, study the Bible and get your hair cut.  Then we'll talk about the car".     

The boy  thought about that for a moment, decided he'd settle for the offer and they agreed on it.                                                                                                  
After about six weeks his father said: "Son, you've brought your grades up and I'm impressed that you have been studying the Bible, When youget your hair cut, I'll be happy to let you drive the car".
The boy said:  "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that, and I've noticed in my studies of the Bible that Samson had long hair, John the Baptist had long hair, Moses had long hair, and there's even strong evidence that Jesus had long hair".

Dad Replied "Did you also notice that they all walked everywhere?"
And on to other business....

2. Barnet Council Audit Committee Round up 

 Last night the Barnet Council Audit Committee met to discuss the latest iteration of the Grant Thornton report into the large Capita Fraud. I addressed the committee, as did my fellow bloggers John Dix and Theresa Musgrove. Several other residents also addressed the committee.

There was also a very short public questions section (myself, John Dix and Barbara Jacobson were given a chance to respond to the non answers we were given.

There were several interesting developments at the meeting. I was first up with my address to the committee. I noted that the two new Tory members of the committee were actively taking notes. Councillor Zinkin, one of the old guard stared boredly into space. For Labour, Alison Moore listened intently. Councillor Mittra had a rather strange look on his face. I do hope that he is not unwell. The independent member Richard Harbord. Mr Harbord didn't look particularly interested in anything I said, and actually fell asleep during another member of the publics contribution. He was woken up when a very naughty member of the public shouted at him to wake up. What terribly rude members of the public we have in Barnet, waking up people from much needed beauty sleep!

I've no idea what anyone thought of my comments, as there was absolutely no response at all. For reasons I don't understand, my Microphone was turned off half way through my contribution. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd have thought it was th throw me off my train of thought. That would be silly. I'm a musician and I'm used to mic's playing up. Besides, I'd written out what I had to say. Here it is if you are interested.
Dear Members of the Aduit Committee

I have reviewed the latest iteration of the Grant Thornton report. There are several issues that are of major concern to me, time constraints prevent all of these being raised, in relation to the operation of this committee.

A major concern I have is that it appears Grant Thornton have adopted a new variation of the industry standard RAG status tracking. They have introduced a blue status,
which allegedly means "not tested by Audit". In truth this simply means work not completed. If something is not tested, then there can be no confidence that the work is completed.

As an example, here is the Grant Thornton summary for BACS controls which is blue. It says

"The process has been submitted and verified, however it has not been possible to test the operating effectiveness of this control,
as the control design was not finalised in the testing period. Further testing is required."

In plain English, this means work is not completed and the risk has not been closed. The Audit Committee of Barnet Council should not be complicit in allowing such practices
that brush serious risks under the carpet.

Another major concern is the apparent "positive spin" put on serious deficiencies in rectifiying problems. For instance GT32 "Review of cost
centres and fraudulent transactions" - The work has not been completed. The summary concludes "Significant progress has been made in completing this
recommendation, but some  further limited work remains to be done before the recommendation can be signed off as fully complete. A further verbal update on progress will
be provided to the Audit Committee on 22 November". Verbal updates to the committee are simply unacceptable. There should be a full explanation as to why this workstream
designated High Priority for immediate action has not been completed.

I have to conclude that this report is not fit for purpose and ask for the audit committee to insist that Grant Thornton produce a report that residents and taxpayers can have confidence in.
Next up was Mr Reasonable AKA John Dix. As ever John gave an excellent presentation. He stated that he'd been banned from asking a question by the Grant Thornton auditor. Councillor Finn told him he was being silly and that he'd not been banned from asking the question, the auditor simply wasn't going to answer. I was recalling a meeting around this time last year. Then the chair was former councillor Hugh Rayner. Myself and John Dix addressed the committee. Councillor Rayner spoke to us both before and after and told us how much he valued public comments and the work we were doing. He asurred us that he'd do everything to ensure we got satisfactory responses. Sadly, the new regime takes a different view. Theresa Musgrove made her contribution. One of the new Tory Councillors Alex Prager asked Theresa if she'd bring everything in house after her impassioned contribution. She replied yes she would, but the committee should at least have a proper business case to base their decision on. Councillor Prager looked as if he understood the merit in that suggestion. Next up was Barbara Jacobson from the Barnet Alliance for Public Services. I was shocked by the discourtious treatment Barbara was given. Unlike Councillors, members of the public receive no £10,000 allowance to turn up to meetings. Councillor Finn, the chair, sarcastically commented that there were five people in the public gallery. If that is the level of his scrutiny, no wonder we have had a major fraud. At this point, I broke the habit of a lifetime and took a selfie for posterity of the "5" people in the public gallery and tweeted it.

The contempt for Ms Jacobson was palpable. I don't really understand why. Whatever you may think of Ms Jacobsons views, she's a publicly minded citizen who makes intelligent comments. By all means thwart her with your superior intellect or with facts. Plain rudeness though is another matter altogether. There was considerable rowdyness in the public gallery. I was intrigued. I didn't think Barbara made a significantly better or worse contribution than myself of John Dix, but the reaction in the gallery was markedly hostile. The reason was quite simple. The chair would not be rude to a man in the way he was to Barbara. I hope that a video is produced so you can see. There were a couple more public contributions. All calling for proper scrutiny and asking why the council hadn't already slung Capita out given the appalling findings of Grant Thornton.

Then we had public questions. In this section, the council are ased questions, provide 'responses' (the term answers would be misleading). Then the public can ask a supplemental. I had the chance to answer one supplemental. Interestingly, the chair broke with protocol and invited John Dix up before me. I didn't really mind, John asks far better and more intelligent questions than I do, but it was strange. It soon became clear that the chaior of audit hadn't read the papers properly and it was simply a mistake. John got his non answer. I was invited up next.  The question I had asked was as follows
Please can the chair of  the committee explain why the public should have confidence in the Grant Thornton report, given that they were the council auditors at the time that the Capita contracts were set up. Whilst the   report   does appear to be thorough and professionally produced, there  is a clear conflict of interest and surely a    completely independent firm, who had no possible  vested interest in the outcome of the review    
The response was as follows
GrantThornton were the Council’s external auditors for the years 2002-03 to 2014-5 and the alleged fraud took place after this period of audit (the first alleged fraudulent transaction took place in July 2016). The Review considered the controls in place from the time the alleged fraud started and the extent to which controls had been revised since.

Other companies were considered and discounted before the appointment of
Grant Thornton; BDO for example were considered inappropriate as they are the
Council’s current auditors and PwC were discounted given they are the Council’s current internal auditors.GT have considerable experience and skills in this area and this response should give the public the reasons why they should have confidence that GT has carried out a professional review that can be relied upon

No conflict of interest exists.
Given that Grant Thornton were the auditors when the controls for the original contract were set up, as admitted in this response, this response is totally unsatisfactory. I am also very disturbed that the fraud is referred to as an alleged fraud twice. This is at odds with the facts. The fraudster was convicted. This is not alleged.  Is there another fraud? That can be the only explanation (apart from a complete misunderstanding of the law by the council).

The suplimental question I asked was why only three accountancy firms were mentioned and whether any others could have been selected. Councillor Finn announced in a very patronising tone "Yes of course there were". That is the level of response we get.

After public questions, Cllr Barry Rawlings, Labour Group leader addressed the committee. He was concerned about the redacted sections of the report which the councillors were being asked to vote on. He stated that councillors could not provide scrutiny if they were denied access to papers. A  discussion followed and Councillor Moore asked for a vote. Councillor Finn was rather surprised when the two new Tory Councillors broke rank, to allow the Labour motion to pass. For most people this would seem like a fine display of common sense and independence by Cllr's Prager and Jajeh, we congratulate them on their stance. It was pragmatic and appreciated by the public. This resulted in the committee going into closed session later to discuss the secret bits of the papers.

By then however I was long gone. 

3. Bin Collection Chaos.

As I mentioned above, I was long gone by the end of the meeting. I play five a side football on a Thursday (yes bloggers have a life). Afterwards, I usually adjourn to The Bridge in Mill Hill for a pint. As I was drinking with my football buddies, I was joined by one of our local UKIP activists, a regular at the Bridge. He was having a beer with a Barnet bin man. Although some may think UKIP have gone away, they are very much alive and well in Mill Hill and are actively working to recruit council workers, fed up with the Tories and looking for a party they feel can represent them. Odd though it may seem, I am happy to have a beer and a chat with people across the political spectrum.
The chap from UKIP was especially keen for me to hear what the binman had to say. I established that the chap was a UNISON member. He told me that the council knew the new routes were unworkable and furthermore told me that his supervisor had told him "It will get worse before it gets better". He said that in all his years in the council, and after all the changes he'd seen, this was the worst reorganisation he'd ever known. 

The chap fro UKIP's parting shot was interesting. He said "The Tories and Labour in Barnet Council have let down these guys. There is a lot of interest in UKIP in the workforce. You wouldn't see any of their councillors in the Bridge having a beer with real workers". As a Lib Dem who does drink beer in the Bridge with real workers, it put into focus exactly what happened in the council chamber. An out of touch committee chair, a bunch of politicians who would never set foot in a pub to sup with the workers, an executive who treat the public with contempt. Public questions get responses that are not only not answers, but are factually incorrect. 

I run a business. If the loo's are blocked, I unblock them. If an engineer has a problem, I sit next to them and help them. If I had been elected as a councillor, I would have joined a bin crew on a round, to see the problem. I would have spoken with the depot supervisors. I would have initiated  a root cause analysis on day 1 of the problems. None of this has been done. Councillors don't do dustcarts in Barnet. I think we are getting to the point where there is a very toxic mix brewing. As a blogger, I see it as my duty to speak to people from all walks of life and corners of the Borough. What I am hearing is more disturbing by the day. 

 Please excuse me for spoiling the joke.  Now I really must sell some guitars.

---- Don't forget to make a date in your diary for The Barnet Eye Xmas party and Community awards at Mill Hill Rugby Club on Fri 14th December at Mill Hill Rugby Club at 8pm. We really hope you can come down and say Hi. Admission is Free.

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