Thursday, 16 October 2014

Keep it in perspective, or: Mistakes will happen: a salute from the bridge, as the Barnet Tory ship sinks into the sea

Three wise monkeys: Barnet's Chief Executive, the Tory 'Leader', and the new Monitoring Officer (interim/for the duration).
 
So, yes: about Tuesday night - and absent friends: a face missing at the committee table, and a new one, slightly red in the face, looking as if he wished he were back in what must seem like the parish council tedium of Westminster City Council: here is Mr Large, the new, secondhand, seconded, pre-used, part-time, interim, temporary Monitoring Officer. 

Mrs Angry greeted him cheerfully, when it was her turn to sit at the table, recognising his face from a long search on google image, looking for a nice pic for yesterday's blog, and finding a suitable shot of him sinking his weary head in his hands, which may well be a position with which he finds himself familiar, in the time he spends here, in exile, in Broken Barnet.

Not that he will spend much time here, as we discovered: but we are jumping ahead of ourselves.

This meeting was the Policy and Resources Committee, to which had been submitted the condemnatory report into Barnet's governance and legal service, written by Claer Lloyd-Jones. 

No public statement had been made by the council about the findings of the report, or indeed that the investigation had been concluded: it was hidden in the agenda of this meeting, as if it were just another routine matter, of no consequence.

The significance of this report, of course, is immense, and no amount of obfuscation and denial by our Tory members can disguise the devastating consequences of the failures identified by Ms Lloyd-Jones. 

But denial is, predictably, perhaps, the tactic adopted by Cornelius and his colleagues, in the face of all reason.

There was clear indication of this line of defence at a meeting the night before, held to discuss the renumeration of senior officers. The Labour leader tried to raise a point about the post of Monitoring Officer, and ask that the role should be filled by a qualified person. A reasonable, if somewhat restrained suggestion to make, one might think. 

The Tory leader bristled at this unwarranted exhibition of political challenge. 

This will be, he muttered dismissively, something we discuss tomorrow night. He unbent a little, and graciously admitted that he had 'some sympathy with what you are saying'. Further comments provoked a tut-tutted response: we must not assume what tomorrow's committte will decide, he said, pursing his lips.

There are, he observed, rather mystifyingly, levels of sophistication here ... 

Are there, thought Mrs Angry, looking round the room? 

The Labour leader ploughed on dutifully, pushing for clarification over the qualifications of the next MO. 

There was, she sensed, a certain amount of turbulence, around that role ...

Turbulence, thought Mrs Angry. Indeed there is. 

Or you might go further, if you were less polite, and say there is a sense of being f*cked over, good and proper, by a conniving, lazy, incompetent Tory administration, being led by the nose by their own senior management team. Around that role.

But, see: this is why Mrs Angry did not pursue a career in diplomacy, or the hospitality industry, and prefers to be in the eye of the storm, rather than standing by with a clipboard, at the edge, noting the change in weather.

Cornelius may have hoped for a similarly oblique exchange of opinions at P&R. If so, he must have been gravely disappointed.    

         

Public questions he attempted to deflect with his usual assumption of innocent misunderstanding, or by a tight lipped refusal to comment. Not much he could do about questions from opposition members, especially the new ones, whose approach is somewhat more direct than he is used to, but he had carefully prepared the ground, or so he thought, by demanding absolute silence from his own Tory colleagues on the committee. 

There they sat, deputy leader Dan Thomas, a sullen faced Tom Davey, Reuben Thompstone, and the inscrutable Sachin Rajput, trying to stay awake, but failing, all of them bound by the rule of omerta, agreed, and signed in blood, no doubt, at the Tory group pre-meeting before the main event. 

A trio of uncharacteristically silent Tory councillors: Rajput, Thompstone and Thomas

The older but no wiser Anthony Finn was unable to keep his mouth entirely shut, sadly, and sometime actor/councillor David Longstaff also blurted something out at one point, but generally the feeling from the Tory side of the table was one of a sulky agreement to close their eyes, swallow hard, and pretend they were not there, in the hope that the ordeal would soon be all over.

This is never going to be over, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: at least, not until we say so, see. Open your eyes: yes - it's all going horribly wrong, isn't it?

Public question time is meant to be for, well, the public: but reporter Anna Slater, from the local Times, used her initiative, supported, on the night, by new information for supplementary questions, and submitted queries that, for some reason, she felt would not have been answered through the usual press channels. 

She was probably right, and in fact the information chiselled out of the Tory leader and his officers by the range of questioners was pretty surprising, especially in relation to the interesting chain of events which led to the hiring and then the - not firing - but departure of the former Monitoring Officer on a basis of, what was it again ... mutual consent?

We learned from the questions submitted that Ms Salter was one of only two people who applied for her post. Both were internal applicants. Only two were shortlisted.  Both were 'assessed' at an ''assessment centre' through a process involving 'a meeting exercise, written exercise, behavioural interview following Wave and Hogan psychometric testing and a technical interview'. 

Mrs Angry would like to have been a fly on the wall, during the behavioural interview, wouldn't you, readers?

Following this process, we were told, one candidate withdrew and the other was deemed suitable to move through to the officer interview panel.

Oh. Deemed suitable. Doesn't say on what basis. 

The ability to use a pencil, that sort of thing, probably. 

Wonder why one candidate withdrew? And then: how many were invited to a final interview panel? One, of course. Hmm. 

How many of these people had a legal background?

One.

Ok, so we know that was not Ms Salter, so the person who withdrew was someone who did have a legal background, and was better qualified for the post. What a shame this person withdrew. Especially as it was now confirmed, rather startlingly, by Andrew Travers, the Chief Executive, that that person was none other than the former head of governance, and Monitoring Officer, Jeff Lustig.

Mrs Angry was amazed that the Chief Executive was happy to name this person so openly, but of course he must have taken legal advice before doing so, and  - oh. 

Maybe not.

Why did the former Monitoring Officer suddenly withdraw from the process of application for his own job, a job which he clearly has undertaken for many years, with admirable skill, and for which he was very obviously the only really suitable candidate?

Could it be related to the modification of the post as one with no legal requirement? 

Why would you remove that requirement, anyway? 

All a great mystery, is it not? 

But a lucky outcome for Ms Salter, or so it must have seemed at the time.

Back to the public questions. Mrs Angry had bunged in three, at three minutes before the deadline. The art, for the lazy blogger attending committee meetings, of course, is really in the supplementary questions, and in trying to disturb the composure of the chairwoman, in this case, the Tory leader. Pointless, but satisfying, as a form of sport.

Mrs Angry tries her best to disturb the composure of Mr Travers and Cllr Cornelius

Q: In view of the unprecedented level of criticism levelled at the standard of governance and legal services in this authority, does the Chief Executive still retain the full confidence of the Chair, and the Conservative administration, and if not, have they asked for his resignation, or has he offered to resign?

A: Yes
      N/A
      N/A

Oh dear. Rather short on information, wasn't it? Mrs Angry took her place at the table.

She confessed herself to be rather astonished by the fact that the Chief Executive - no offence, Mr Travers, she murmured, soothingly, in his direction, in case his feelings were hurt -that the Chief Executive still enjoyed the full confidence of Councillor Cornelius. 

What would happen if, say, it was discovered that the caretakers of the Town Hall had, since April 2013 or thereabouts, been in the habit of leaving the doors and windows of the building unlocked, and open to intruders, every night (which they would not, and here Mrs Angry must take the opportunity to say how very polite and conscientious they are). Would they not be instantly dismissed?


And yet: here we were, with a Chief Executive who had allowed the authority to proceed without the protection of an adequate legal service, or rule of governance, and still he retained his job, and the support of the Tory leader. And despite the fact that, as the response to Q 35 makes clear: 

As Head of paid Service, the Chief Executive is ultimately responsible for all officer activity.

He is surely responsible, ultimately responsible, for all serious failures by those officers, therefore, and yet ... Maryellen Salter carries the can, and the more senior officer, who has a legal duty to ensure compliance with all statutory requirements, goes scot free. 

Hmm. Cornelius made one of his pained faces, the one that looks as if he might be suffering from prolonged constipation, but usually signifies a determination to avoid answering an awkward question. 

In this instance, he decided to go further than merely avoiding a response, and produced an observation which was quite breathtaking in its display of indifference to the significance of Ms Lloyd-Jones' findings: 

Mistakes will happen, he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Very expensive mistakes, observed Mrs Angry primly, eyebrows raised over the rim of her glasses.

Meh. What does expense matter, when it is the poor taxpayers of Broken Barnet who will pick up the bill, and not R. Cornelius and the gang of eejits sitting around the Tory end of the table?

Worse was to come.

The consequence of all this of course, said Cornelius smugly, was that there were more Conservative members on committees ...

Mrs Angry throught she must have misheard this comment, but no: he repeated it later in the evening, and it is captured on film, for your benefit.

In other words, the Tory leader is not at all bothered by the findings of the Lloyd-Jones report, or the failures that are identified, because as a result of the whole cockup, the Tories emerged with a stronger political presence on all committees, and are able to push through their shabby agenda of further privatisation and cuts in vital services. Result. 

Next question:

Q: The report has very serious implications for a long sequence of decisions sanctioned by the Monitoring Officer and HBPublic Law: since the findings of the report were known, has the authority taken steps to ensure the legal basis of any of those decisions, but in particular:

• all decisions made by the new committee structure which were said to be lawful, despite the non constitutional basis in which they were made?

• the dispensations Tory members have arranged from the Monitoring Officer to hide their pecuniary interests rather than declare them at council meetings

• the constitutional basis of the working groups and failure to extend the rights of members of the public in regard to council meetings

• the dismissal of certain allegations made before the decision to put other charges before the Mayor's panel hearing

A: Decisions of the Monitoring Officer were supported by legal advice, including external legal advice from leading counsel. There is no intention to revisit those decisions.

Another pretty extraordinary response: no intention to check that no other serious mistakes have been made?

Mrs Angry suggested to the Tory leader that this was absolutely incredible. This damning report, she said,  confirms that you have exposed the authority to considerable risk as a result of serious failures, and your incompetence. 

What was described as the 'shambles' of the full council meeting is only one instance: what about, for example, the dispensations that you required an unqualified Monitoring Officer to give Tory members so they could hide their pecuniary interests? 

Was he happy that that was lawful advice, and that some of his Tory colleagues might face criminal investigations, if not, bearing in mind that failing to declare a pecuniary interest can be a criminal offence? (Earlier in the year, incidentally, Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard were surprised to hear from the MO that councillors were apparently not required to notify her of interests accrued after 28 days from the date they had been elected, when it was discovered a member had not added such an interest to their own register entry. A declaration was subsequently made, however).

Perhaps 'hide' is an exaggeration: or perhaps it is not - a nominal admission is made, but certainly by allowing those councillors to then take part in proceedings, the impression will be given to most onlookers that there was no personal benefit that might raise a conflict of interest.

Cornelius made another face, and interrupted to say that the dispensations did reveal that people 'had a property', that the point of the dispensation was to allow members to take part in debate, and to - ha ha - 'use their experience wisely' ...

That remark, as you might expect, was met with a certain amount of ribald laughter amongst the public seats. And of course the current Mayor, Hugh Rayner has plenty of experience as a landlord that he feels enables him to do just that, does he not?

Ah: so the dispensations were not so as to ensure Tory members could take part in votes and decisions from which they would, ordinarily, in the absence of such dispensations, automatically be barred, but merely so as to bring a deeper level of experience to the heady intellectual debate that we enjoy in the long moments of any Barnet committee meeting.

One would hope that no member would willingly mislead residents as to their own interests, but the question here that must be addressed is whether the authority's own advice on this matter is sufficiently robust and will protect members from accusations of wrongdoing, by taking part in such meetings.

Mrs Angry reminded Councillor Cornelius that it is on record that Ms Salter stated it was only assumed that the dispensations were constitutional, and that no one knows if they are indeed lawful, and the authority therefore may have been exposed to serious risk.

Oh: hello - here is the new Monitoring Officer (interim, on loan from Westminster) Mr Large, who thought the Localism Act did allow for dispensations, but interestingly, he said 'he would be looking at that', which suggested that there was, at the very least, an element of doubt as to the lawfulness of the use of these waivers, and he stated he would not allow any member to 'hide' any interests. Hiding, or setting to one side: one must keep asking the question -how can the granting of dispensations to cover these interests not be in conflict with the principle of full disclosure? 

What is the point of the localism act requiring members to make declarations of pecuniary interests, or risk prosecution, and yet allow them to opt out of the restrictions that should apply once they had done so, in some form - simply because they want to? 

How does this serve the notion of transparency, and probity in public office?

We don't know, and we need to be told, and we should have been assured of the legal status before any were allowed. 

And the point is that this is only one of the many questionable decisions sanctioned in the period scrutinised by Ms Lloyd-Jones's report: how many other dubious actions approved in this time now lie open to challenge?

And on the subject of transparency, Mrs Angry's last question: 

Q:The findings of the report by Ms Lloyd-Jones, commissioned in June, have been known since August, yet no public statement was issued in the form of a press release, and nothing known until October, when the matter was slipped into a report to this meeting. How is such an action compliant with the requirements of transparency and accountability to the residents and taxpayers of this borough?

A:The full report of Ms Lloyd-Jones is being presented to the first available Policy and Resources Committee meeting.

Mrs Angry came back to the table to ask about, yes, that thing again, the concept that is so hard for our Tory members to understand, the principle of transparency, and how it is best served by sneaking this report into the meeting and not making any statement beforehand to the residents and taxpayers of this borough? It seems to me, she continued, that is not what transparency is meant to be. She did not see how any of the Nolan Principles were being served in the way they had conducted themselves in the course of the last two administrations, and it seemed incredible to her that they could regard such a serious report to be of so little relevance it doesn't deserve a formal statement to the press.

Cornelius, again, wasn't bovvered. The report should be presented to councillors first, of course. Councillors could then ask Ms Lloyd-Jones, (who was sitting in the front row, next to Mrs Angry) about the report. As it happened, it would appear that for the Tory members, this was a complete waste of time, as they had nothing to ask, which is pretty astonishing, you might think.

Mrs Angry suggested that residents would therefore have to make up their own minds about the whole matter, and sat down. As she did so, you may note from the footage, the Chief Executive, arms gripped defensively across his chest, made some sort of disparaging remark to his boss. (He is his boss, is he? Sort of.)


After the public questions, it was time for Ms Lloyd-Jones to address the committee. She explained her background as a lawyer, and part time judge, and said that she had been a Monitoring Officer and worked with non legally qualified MOs, and was open minded on that subject - although later she agreed that the majority of MOs were indeed qualified lawyers.

Her job, she said, was to hold a mirror up to the council. Mrs Angry had a horrible vision, then of Medusa, and being turned to stone, rather in the manner of the Tory councillors sitting around the table, rigid with unease, looking on, in brooding silence.

We heard about the risks raised by the recent arrangements in law and governance: the loss of corporate memory, and the development of a state of ignorance in which the council could be described as one that 'doesn't know what it doesn't know'.

Time for a contribution from Andrew Travers, the Chief Executive in whom the Tory leader, as Mrs Angry was assured, retains the utmost confidence, so why he now was prevailed upon to make a somewhat limited, ritual form of 'apology' at all, is rather mysterious. 

He accepted the conclusions of the report, he said. Big of you, thought Mrs Angry. And then: he would repeat the previous apology in regard to these 'shortcomings'. Not sure what previous 'apology' had taken place, or where, but his comments now did not really conjure up the impression  of a man overwhelmed with regret, or any sense of personal failure. 

Shortcomings, of course, are nothing serious, and besides ... mistakes will happen, as the Tory leaders so blithely informed us.
 
Back to questions for Claer Lloyd -Jones. The sole contribution from the Tory ranks consisted of a couple of barking comments from Anthony Finn, the sometime chairwoman of various committees, who believes that the point of scrutiny is not to be critical, but to make 'positive remarks'. The very idea of a report like this must be anathema to him, therefore. 

Finn thought that all sorts of people had held the post of Monitoring Officer, including, he claimed, surveyors, and ... communists. Erm? All that was needed in the post, he said was A Clear Head. 

Oh, how we chortled. We can only surmise that in the course of those behavioural interviews, Ms Salter was identified as having A Clear Head, and Mr Lustig began to wonder what the hell he was doing there in the first place. Am I right, Jeff?

Labour's Ross  Houston was not convinced by Councillor Finn's suggestion. He thought that perhaps, were he to be having his tonsils removed, he might prefer to have a qualified doctor, rather than someone with, yes,  A Clear Head.

A clear headed Councillor Finn

One interesting remark by Ms Lloyd Jones suggested that the fiasco over the wrongly designed committees, which required a legal opinion, which may or may not have been conclusive anyway, proved the value of an in-house legal service. she also observed that sharing legal services with Harrow could create conflicts of interest. 

Cornelius reminded everyone that we had, at taken external advice. Indeed: and it is hard to see how the current arrangements, buying in legal advice from HBPublic Law and from external counsel, can possibly be cost effective, compared to in-house provision. It is rather like a family in poverty demonstrating their commitment to austerity measures by deciding to abandon their kitchen, and live on a diet of takeaways, isn't it?


Perhaps the most telling performance from the opposition councillors came from new Labour member, Paul Edwards. Paul may be a new member, but is a former union convenor of many years experience, and well versed in the art of politics. He is also refreshingly direct in his approach, and unlike some of the longer serving members, has not been brainwashed into the misapprehension that senior officers must not be challenged by councillors, because it is 'not fair'. The truth that has escaped some of the more traditionally minded members is that the council is being run by the senior management team, to their agenda, and any resemblance to the ideological idees fixes of the elected Tory group is entirely coincidental.

Councillor Edwards had a question first of all for Claer Lloyd-Jones. He produced two documents, two reports from 2013, one of which had been submitted to an Audit Committee, and both of which addressed the need to have in place a system of contract monitoring in regard to the issues now highlighted as being of concern, but these reports had not been implemented. Had she seen them? She had not. 

Claer Lloyd-Jones, left, and Councillor Paul Edwards, right

How very odd, that officers had not thought to present these documents to her.

The questions - from Labour members only - continued at length. Ross Houston noted that it was crazy, in his opinion, not to have in house resources. Claer Lloyd-Jones reminded us that the deputy Monitoring Officer (yes, apparently there was one), ie Jessica Farmer, from HBpublic Law was legally qualified. Ironic, you might think, that the deputy MO had the qualifications her senior lacked.

But here is an even more interesting conundrum.

The opposition members tried hard to tease out the timeline of events leading to the departure of Maryellen Salter. Mrs Angry is not awfully confident that the timeline presented as the official version is entirely credible. Yes, shocking, is it not?

Ms Salter's employment with Barnet finished, we are told, last Thursday, the 9th October. Yet she had not been at work since some time earlier in September. Her absence was not due to suspension, nor gardening leave. During her absence, which was apparently only leave, a range of dispensations in her name was presented to Full Council,  on 23rd September. 

Why was Jessica Farmer's name not on that report? If, as Travers claimed in response to a public question, that Ms Farmer was the nominated deputy (which is a statutory requirement), should her name not have been on all such documents? Were those dispensations valid?

When did Ms Farmer take over as the duties of deputy, in the absence of Ms Salter? Why did Ms Salter's out of office response not explain that Ms Farmer was currently acting on her behalf, or give a return date? As another new Labour councillor, Alon Or Bach explained, her out of office message as late as 5th October gave no mention of any delegation of her duties.

Why is Ms Farmer not acting as deputy now, and why did we, in a sudden panic, last Thursday, have to acquire the part-time services (only two days a week, we heard) of Mr Large, from Westminster Council?

Why did the Chief Executive of Westminster Council say Mr Large's role in Barnet would have no impact on his responsibliities in Westminster? Is his role then purely nominal?

Back to Paul Edwards, and the issue of the withheld documents: why did officers not share these with Ms Lloyd-Jones? They raised issues of serious risk which were really pertinent.

Well, said Andrew Travers ... they tried to make sure all relevant documents were available to her. There was no attempt to conceal anything.

Councillor Edwards said he was not suggesting there had been concealment, but why had they not shown them to her? These recommendations had never been implemented.

Cornelius remarked that he thought Paul Edwards was making a statement, rather than asking a question.

The annual meeting, he conceded, had been 'a poor show'. He admitted that he originally had not considered that the MO would be someone who was not legally qualified.

Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, could contain himself no longer. He tried to help the Tory leader out, in his own way. 

You can always be your own doctor, or solicitor, he suggested, suddenly keen to think about the benefits of self-help, and keeping  A Clear Head.  Like Mr Shepherd himself, who has perfect clarity of thought, and could make a fair stab at being a Monitoring Officer: especially as Cllr Finn has spoken so warmly of a former communist in the role.


I know a fool when I see one, he said, monitoring the group of Tories sitting like sulky schoolboys at the far end of the room, and there are plenty of them sitting round the table.

Cornelius was feeling emboldened now, and launched into a further preposterous rebuttal of the findings of the report.


The arrangement with HBPublic Law, he said, was working very well. Yes, there were shortcomings, but, he observed, standing on the bridge, saluting, like Captain Edward Smith, as the icy waters rushed into the third class quarters down below - we must keep this in perspective

All that's happened, he repeated, as the rest of the room looked on, wondering where the lifeboats were, and how many of us would fit in, all that's happened is that there are more Conservatives on committees ...

In life, in death, O Lord, muttered Mrs Angry, her hands clasped in prayer, Abide with me.

Resting thespian, and grateful councillor David Longstaff was singing from the same hymnsheet. 

He wanted us to admire the recent award handed to HBPublicLaw by the Law Society. Councillor Longstaff was apparently unaware of this article in the Barnet Press, in which it is reported:

After being contacted by The Press, a spokeswoman for the Law Society said it had been contacted by Ms Lloyd-Jones and was in the process of reviewing her report on the council.

Alon Or Bach queried the timeline of events, and the circumstances in which Mr Large had come to be appointed as an interim MO. Andrew Travers was obliged to come up with an explanation, of sorts, and as he did so, Mrs Angry noticed the mutinous Tory councillors regarding him with close attention. One might easily have concluded, from their body language, that they were as much in the dark as anyone else.

Alon Or Bach

The Labour leader proposed some suggestions to go down as amendments to the Tories' proposed recommendations in response to the report. These were all perfectly reasonable amendments:
  • That legal services are brought back-in house
  • That the vacant Monitoring Officer post must be filled by a legally qualified person, and this must be specified in the job description and job advert
  • That pending legal services being brought back in-house the recommendations of the external report that strengthen Barnet’s legal and governance arrangements are agreed
  • That high-level in-house legal support is introduced in Barnet pending legal services being brought back-in house
  • That all decisions taken since Barnet ceased to have a legally qualified Monitoring Officer are reviewed  
Too reasonable, of course, for our Tory members. Cornelius would not support bringing legal services in house. And the deputy leader, Dan Thomas, suddenly found his voice, right at the end of the meeting, and said that he did not see the need for an all encompassing review of decisions taken.

Well, what a surprise! 

Alison Moore reminded them of issues such as the dispensations, the leaders panel: all things that must be reviewed, and so for that reason, she said, she would ask her colleagues to move the report to Full Council.

Cornelius looked less than pleased, because of course he has difficulty in forcing all his Tory colleagues to turn up to Full Council, and sooner or later, he is going to find he has not got a majority present, and Labour will be able to vote through their own motions and amendments. Oh dear.

Which is why the next day it was announced that the extraordinary council meeting to consider Labour's vote of no confidence in his leadership will take place at the end of Full Council, when there might be a chance all his members have managed to stroll along to the Town Hall. 

Providing, that is, that all of them do  vote against the motion, ... otherwise - we could end up with a new leader, altogether, couldn't we? 

Always useful, of course, to have a nominated deputy, just in case.




Monday, 13 October 2014

Giving it (not very) Large: Barnet's new interim, part-time, temporary Monitoring Officer steps into the breach. Sort of.


Our new, part-time, interim, temporary Monitoring Officer, Peter Large, on loan from Westminster City Council (hours to be negotiated), clearly looking forward to his association with Broken Barnet. Pic courtesy of Nutsville.com.

So ... as our former Monitoring Officer would begin all her remarks ... So: where were we?

Ah yes: our former Monitoring Officer, see? Gone, but not forgotten. Gone where, Mrs Angry, I hear you ask? Not sure, but it is 'by mutual consent'. 

All the best things happen by mutual consent, don't they? In the bedroom, in the boardroom, in the free world, where life continues without the bondage of contractual obligation, or the frisson of fear that comes from that imbalance of power between partners, personal, or corporate.

Between the boundaries of Broken Barnet, however, the ties that bind are usually stretched tight as tight can be, and consent is neither sought, nor granted. When push comes to shove: off you go. 

Bye bye.

Who knows what happened in the case of Ms Maryellen Salter, sometime Monitoring Officer, now replaced by an 'interim' MO, although not replaced, we are told, until Thursday, 9th October, after the most almighty reaction to the events that led to that damning report, by Claer Lloyd-Jones, into the collapse of governance and legal services in this benighted borough. 

Of course we like 'interim' consultants, here in Barnet. 

We like them a lot, and we recruit them as often as possible, for our senior management posts, via the discreet offices of a third party - an agency, so as to confound the investigative zeal of the local blogosphere. 

These interims and consultants blow into town, wafted on a cloud of mystery, landing at NLBP, staying as long as possible, on terms and conditions beyond the scope of public scrutiny, before moving on to pastures new - very often, it seems, to Haringey, to work for former Barnet CEO, Mr Nick Walkley, the real architect of One Barnet, the massive programme that outsourced most of our council services . 

Walkley is of course also the man who oversaw the restructuring of the governance and legal services department here, with a post of Monitoring Officer newly defined, for some reason, with no requirement for any legal qualifications - which is how we ended up with an auditor instead of an experienced lawyer, with predictable and disastrous consequences.

Mrs Angry can guess what you are wondering: will Ms Salter end up in Haringey too ... or is it true she has just accepted a post as the events manager for a local micro-brewery? 

Who knows?

We do know, however that our new Monitoring Officer, or rather the 'interim' MO, comes with an interesting CV: from Westminster Council, tripping with ease from one former Tory 'flagship' authority to another: both fine examples of Tory councils, of course, with many similarities. 

A keen interest in social engineering, for example, from accusations of 'gerrymandering' in Westminster in the eighties, to the social cleansing housing 'regeneration' of Broken Barnet in 2014 -  and an enthusiasm from both Conservative run authorities for milking endless streams of revenue from hapless residents exhibiting the gross impertinence of trying to park their cars on the streets where they live, work, and shop.

Mrs Angry gets an awful lot of blog visits from Westminster City Council these days.

Welcome, new friends. 

Hope you enjoy the new entente cordiale, between your authority and ours. 

The entente between your authority and the Barnet blogosphere, we must warn you, will be strictly limited, on an interim basis, and may be less than cordiale, at times. 

But here is a curious thing. About our new Monitoring Officer.

Our new Monitoring Officer is not our Monitoring Officer, exactly, - and he is not leaving Westminster City Council. 

We are sharing the attentions of Mr Large with his current employers. Despite the claim made in a statement last week that the new MO had been seconded to Barnet, which rather implies that he is working exclusively for us.

Yes: despite all the criticisms levelled at Barnet by Claer Lloyd-Jones' report in regard to our shared legal services, we have now engaged a part time Monitoring Officer - and on a temporary basis only. 

We find ourselves, in short, in the position of, say, an MP's wife who wakes up to find her husband in the papers for further extra-marital misbehaviour, having been told, following an unfortunate incident involving paisley pyjamas, that it will never happen again, darling.

I feel so betrayed, don't you, readers? And as always, yes, as always, the last to know.

Mrs Angry understands that, rather astonishingly, the appointment of Mr Large to his role in Barnet was not divulged to Labour group members in Westminster, until the day after the deal was agreed, and that the news only emerged through other sources, which, if true, would be a pretty extraordinary state of affairs, would it not?

It seems Westminster's MO has been helping Barnet, 'assisting' us, for a period of two weeks before an 'urgent' situation arose, ie on the 9th October, which suddenly required the immediate appointment of Mr Large to a formal, if rather limited, role in Barnet. 

Oh. Why was it sudden? Did they not foresee the outcome of a report that delivered such a damning indictment of our legal services and governance? Or did they really not predict the level of censure and criticism that the report has provoked? Clearly, by sitting on the report and sneaking it into tomorrow night's committee, they had hoped to keep it quiet for as long as possible, but still ...

And then: it seems Westminster opposition members have been reassured that their Monitoring Officer's Saturday job in Barnet will not 'impact' his duties at Westminster City Council. 

Really?  

So ... either Mr Large is:

a. not exactly rushed off his feet at WCC, or:

b. has no intention of working up a sweat on our behalf, here in Broken Barnet.

What on earth is going on? 

Does anyone actually know? 

Questions that must be asked:

  • When, exactly, did Maryellen Salter leave her role as Monitoring Officer?

  • How long has  she been absent?

  • In her absence, who was the nominated deputy, as required by the law? Or were we just bumbling along, taking informal advice and 'assistance' from Mr Large? What was HBPublic Law's role during this period?

  • Is the truth that Barnet, criticised by Ms Lloyd-Jones for being in a position now where it does not know what it does not know, has been operating without anyone formerly confirmed in what is a statutory role?

  • Does such a possibility not raise the risk that further legal and governance decisions have been wrongly actioned?

  • How can a failure in competence on the scale identified by Ms Lloyd-Jones' investigation be addressed by an authority relying on a part time Monitoring Officer?

  • Why was the appointment of Mr Large only made at the end of last week, a week of intense media speculation, but apparently little political reaction from the Tory leader and his group?

  • If members of Westminster City Council was not aware of the arrangement, why not, and why were such negotiations kept secret? 

  • Was Richard Cornelius aware of the appointment and involved in the decision, or was he - yet again - presented by a fait accompli by his senior management team?

  • How much longer can the Chief Executive remain in post?.

  • Ditto the Barnet Tory 'leader'?

  • Who wants to start a sweepstake?

As Mr Reasonable explains here: 



... there are tonight two council meetings during the course of which a restructuring of senior management will be discussed, supposedly to make savings, but actually creating more pointless and costly senior posts, with the usual self aggrandising job titles. 

As Mr R suggests, there is a better case, now, for deleting the post of Chief Executive, and merging his functions with that of the Chief Operating Officer (sorry, Mr Naylor: without any unwarranted increase in salary). Will this happen? Probably not. But that is not to say that the current CEO is safe in his post.

Tomorrow night sees the Policy and Resources Committee to which Claer Lloyd-Jones' devastating report will be submitted. 

So, yes: another interesting week ahead, in Broken Barnet ...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The truth is more complex - revealed, at last - a cataclysmic failure of governance, in Broken Barnet

Clare Lloyd-Jones             pic courtesy of the Marston Group

*Updated Wednesday: see below

1.3 The voting on ‘wrong’ reports, and the subsequent unraveling of the decision-making structure caused Barnet to be mocked in the local press with headlines using words such as “disgrace” and “chaos”.  No Local Authority would wish to be subject to such avoidable public criticism.

The truth is more complex.

In the last post, you may recall, Mrs Angry raised a question about the long awaited report by lawyer Claer Lloyd-Jones, who had been asked to conduct an investigation into Barnet's governance service earlier this year, but whose findings were as yet unknown. 


By coincidence, or not, but only by accident, it was discovered by local bloggers yesterday that her investigation had not only been concluded, but the findings submitted to the authority last month. 

No announcement of this report, nor the very serious implications for the governance and legal compliance of our local democratic process, had been made by the authority, and quite clearly the matter was being kept under wraps for as long as possible. Until Monday, that is, when someone found out about it, rather than being made known in a formal announcement to the residents and taxpayers of this borough, in an admission of failure on an almost apocalyptic scale,

The findings are simply staggering, and expressed in blunt terms by Ms Lloyd Jones. 

Take for example these observations: 


  • There is no-one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet. 

  • Barnet employs no lawyers. 

  • There are staff in key roles in the Governance structure in Barnet who are inexperienced in governance matters.

  • There was no clear protocol for clearing council reports throughtaking external legal or other specialist advice.

And here is the damning conclusion:



7.1 Barnet Council was ridiculed in the local press for finding itself in the position of having misapplied the political proportionality rules and thereby failing to keep member decision-making safe from challenge. The Chief Executive was subsequently given advice that committees that were not properly and lawfully constituted, an could not continue to meet and make decisions prior to the next Council meeting on July 15th. Leading Counsel’s opinion was taken and he advised that although the political proportionality rules had been misapplied, the committees could continue to meet and make lawful decisions due to the savings provisions in the Act. Leading Counsel’s opinion was preferred. 

7.2 The facts leading up to these events demonstrate that there was no clear protocol or process between Barnet Governance Team and HBPL for providing legal clearance of council reports to ensure that they were correct. In the case of both the political proportionality report and the members allowances report, legal advice was asked for from HBPL. It was not forthcoming, and the absence of legal advice in the reports was not escalated nor chased by Barnet Governance Team. 

7.3 The risk of either of those reports being wrong was therefore high, given that Barnet does not employ any lawyers itself, and the relevant governance staff responsible for these reports are relatively inexperienced.

 7.4 This high reputational risk to the council was multiplied by the change to alternative political management arrangements, ie a return to the Committee system. This risk was further aggravated by a very close election result. 

 7.5 Mitigation of the risk would necessitate early consideration of the legal principles, and close and careful attention being paid to the compilation of reports, in draft, and when submitted to council for decision. This would require at the very least, close collaboration between HBPL and Barnet Governance Team. 

7.6 All parties involved were capable of spotting that something was wrong with the reports, but no-one did. To those members involved, the perception was that no-one was in charge. 

7.7 I find that Barnet’s Governance Team were responsible for the reports being sent to print in their incorrect form and subsequently voted on by members at June 2nd Council meeting. Members were not advised that the reports had no legal clearance, and the form of the report gave no indication of whether the report had been cleared or not. 

7.8 I also find that Barnet’s Governance team were jointly responsible with the shared Legal Service, HBPL, for those reports going to print containing misapplications of the correct law, and allowing members to vote on them as though they were correct. Copies of the reports had been sent to HBPL at an early stage. They gave no comments or advice. The Harrow MO attends Barnet Council meetings in order to advise the Barnet MO and Chief Executive. 

 7.9 In order to prevent the risk of some other governance failing attributable to the absence of legal advice or misapplication of legal advice, a number of changes need to be made to both the IAA and to Barnet’s internal governance arrangements 

You can read the full report here: 

 

 
This investigation had been prompted by a catastrophic failure in the creation and implementation of the authority's new committee system, a sytem to which our Tory members, in their wisdom wished us to return, but failed to ensure that the correct establishment and processes were in place when the change was made. 

The Monitoring Officer of Barnet Council, also the Director of Assurance, since April 2013, is - or at least as far as we know, still is - Maryellen Salter, the former head of internal audit (previously employed by our external auditors, Grant Thornton). 


Will no one think of the Customer? 

Apparently not: we were the last ones to know, weren't we, Mr Naylor?

From the start of the new Tory administration, it was clear that something was badly wrong. The political proportionality of the committees was incorrectly balanced, and it emerged that the committees themselves, therefore, and any decisions made by them, were possibly unlawful. All council meetings were cancelled. It was then announced that they were lawful, after all, and could go ahead, or that they may be unlawful, but any decisions made were not - but no one seemed quite sure. 

The first Full Council meeting of the new administration was an absolute shambles, directly as a result of the incompetent organisation of the new system - and the plotting of Tory councillors, terrified of the implications of their slender majority, intent on excluding Labour members from all opportunities to exploit their vulnerability.

The situation was, in short an all round disaster, and the administration eventually agreed that there was need of an independent investigation.

In the meanwhile, the life of the administration carried on, as if all were well. 

The Tory group launched a series of policies and actions which raised serious questions about the legality of their basis, and the consequences that ensued. 

The new Mayor, Hugh Rayner, was accused by AM Andrew Dismore of a number of very serious allegations relating to his business activities and apparent failure to make declarations of pecuniary interest. The Monitoring Officer disallowed a number of the allegations, which Dismore - who, unlike the Monitoring Officer is a lawyer - fiercely disputed. 

Rayner escaped unscathed from the politically weighted panel hearing, cleared of all charges.

Earlier in the year, a Labour councillor was falsely accused of 'taxdodging' in regard to her council tax. The fact that this was not true, and the false charges due to failures by the council and Capita, did not stop her reputation being smeared, and she had been referred to the police with all speed by the authority within hours of an initial interview about the unfounded claims.

The case of the Tory Mayor, by contrast, involving far more serious allegations, but was not referred to the police.

Bearing in mind the criticisms in the report regarding the provision and quality of advice and support since Barnet outsourced its legal services to HBPublic Law, questions must now be raised about the management of both cases.

There are in fact many decisions and actions which must now be subject to review, and challenge where necessary: including the deeply dubious allocation of 'dispensations' that our Tory councillors have obliged the Monitoring Officer to give them, so as to allow them to take part in meetings and decision making even when they have pecuniary interests: a clear defiance of the Nolan principles that are supposed to govern those in public posts, and, prima facie, an arguably unlawful move, in breach of the localism act, and legislation which makes the non declaration a criminal offence. 

The  status of such dispensations in regard to the authority's own regulations is certainly questionable: a statement made on the subject on behalf of the authority said that it was assumed the dispensations were constitutional. A statement that is an example, we can now conclude, of the lack of legal oversight described by Ms Lloyd Jones in her report. 

False assumptions can be very costly, can't they?

But these are only a few instances of what is clearly a terrible failure in governance, and law, by Barnet Council. 

The report makes clear that this disastrous situation is a result of the ill conceived outsourcing of legal services, and the removal of the post of head of governance, (or democratic services, as it used to be called when there was at least some semblance of democracy in Barnet). It should also be remembered that the Tory administration sanctioned the cutting of several posts within the governance service.

The Monitoring Officer may well be set up as the solitary scapegoat for this mess: but that would be unfair, as clearly the responsibility for governance and law is ultimately borne by the Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer - and of course the real culprits here are the Tory leader and his senior colleagues, who decided on this course of action, and were happy to approve both the abolishment of in house legal services, and the post formerly held by the most senior lawyer, who also ensured the proper process of governance.

Tory councillors are this morning gathering in a panic at the council's headquarters at North London Business Park in order to discuss this unprecedented state of crisis.

Apart from the disastrous findings of the report, one must ask why members appear not to have been informed of the findings until now; and why the report was not made public, but was sat on, and then sidelined, sneaked into the agenda of a policy and resources committee agenda? 

The final version was apparently published on 14th September, the original date, it seems, of the report, was in August.

In the time since the investigation has begun, hugely significant decisions that affect not just members, or employees, but the daily lives of every man, woman and child in this borough, have continued to be made, even after the report was submitted - despite the serious questions now raised about the very constitutional basis of the council. 

Once the report and its findings were made known to those who commissioned it, no press release was made, no statement given, until bloggers broke the news, stumbling upon the report, hidden in plain sight, in the unpublicised agenda of the Policy & Resources committee. 

Only when the findings had been uncovered in this way did the council respond. 

This is simply not good enough.

Mrs Angry tweeted the following question to Mr Chris Naylor, the Chief Operating Officer, and enthusiastic supporter of open government, this morning: 

  4h4 hours ago
If the default mode of is 'open gov' why has the damning report into governance not been openly acknowledged?

He replied:

52m52 minutes ago

do you mean the report published on the web, that is going to a public meeting and that we're talking to the press about?

To which Mrs Angry's response was:
Oh come off it: a report with such serious findings should have been put in the public domain with a statement asap, not sat on

(He's still arguing on twitter, by the way, and getting some well deserved impertinence in response).

It is clear that there is urgent need for an emergency council meeting to discuss this report, and the fullest scrutiny given, in public, to the implications.

Perhaps one question that might be asked is this: was the requirement for legal qualifications removed from the job description of the post now held -maybe - by the current Monitoring Officer? 

If so, who removed it, and why? 

Was there a risk assessment of the consequences in failing to have a lawyer in this statutory post?

How many decisions by the authority since the new structure was in place are now potentially invalid, and subject to legal challenge, and how much cost to local taxpayers will there be, as a result?

What does this latest failure in outsourcing tell us about the risks presented by the two massive Capita contracts which our Tory councillors have committed us to for a period of no less than ten years? 

Let's look again at one of the findings of the report by Claer Lloyd-Jones:

7.6 All parties involved were capable of spotting that something was wrong with the reports, but no-one did. To those members involved, the perception was that no-one was in charge.

There, in short, you have the most damning observation of all. 

Don't be fooled by the tradition of Broken Barnet in which all major cockups, from the Icelandic fiasco to every other mess that has occurred, are blamed on one individual, and addressed by the sacrifical offering of that person's job.

The incompetence of senior management, the inexperience of one senior officer, the lack of professional support from our oursourced legal service: factors which contributed to the perfect storm we now see wreaking havoc in the administration of our local authority, but the truth is that, ultimately, this is a political failure by the Conservative leader, and his party. 

Richard Cornelius takes a hands off approach to governance, and has left all the boring day to day management of the council to 'Travers', as he refers to him, in the manner of the master of Downtown Abbey flinging his coat on the floor for his valet to pick up. 

But Cornelius had ultimate responsibility for this awful situation, and must accept that. 

He should now consider his own position as leader, even if the Chief Executive remains in post, safely enveloped in the protection of that black hole he carries everywhere with him.

The investigation by Claer Lloyd Jones tells us some of the story: the rest is unknown. 

What is clear is this: our council is being run by a bunch of incompetent fools, with a catastrophic  disregard for the due processes of law, as well as the need for transparency, and accountability. 

And while we disport ourselves in the wake of these revelations, those who are waiting offstage, waiting to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Tories next round of privatisation will be standing by, grinning, and rubbing their sweaty hands with glee.

More later.

Updated Wednesday:

A statement has at last emerged from the Barnet Labour leadership:

Labour calls for no confidence vote in Council Leader after damning report on governance failures

Labour councillors have called for an Extraordinary Council meeting after a damning independent report was published yesterday into June’s shambolic Annual Council Meeting and the constitutional crisis that followed where the decision-making process in Barnet ground to a halt because committees were not properly constituted at the Annual Meeting.

The independent report states that: 
  • There is no-one who understands local government law in depth atBarnet. Barnet employs no lawyers.
  • There are staff in key roles in the Governance structure in Barnetwho are inexperienced in governance matters.
  • There was no clear protocol for clearing council reports throughtaking external legal or other specialist advice.
  • Barnet was moving to a very different Constitution at the Annual Council and needed to have given detailed consideration to the implications of moving back to the Committee system. It is not just a question of making amendments to the Constitution.
  • Legal Advice was requested on both the reports, but was not forthcoming on either in time for them to be printed. No-one at Barnet queried this or noticed anything was wrong.

Barnet’s legal service was outsourced through a shared service agreement with Harrow Council under the One Barnet mass-privatisation programme in April 2012 on the basis that it would save money and provide greater flexibility and capacity to manage the council’s legal work more efficiently. But the independent report suggests that Barnet does not have “access to pro-active professional and expert advice at all relevant times” and that “the clienting of the HBPL service has had no professional legal input looking at the quality of legal advice given for 18 months”. Last month’s performance data also shows the outsourced service is currently overspent by £138,000 or 7.7% of the overall budget.

The Cabinet Resources report from the Leader of the Council that recommended the outsourcing also states that “Governance arrangements will be developed to enable this council to have strategic oversight of the Joint Legal Service…”, but the independent report findings show this hasn’t happened. 

The council was supposed to have appointed a legally qualified person to monitor the contract with Harrow Council according to the Inter Authority Agreement but this did not happen either.

Authorisation of the Inter-Authority Agreement with Harrow Council was delegated to the Leader of the Council and Deputy Leader of the Council.  This authorisation was formally published in an officer delegated powers report which was exempt from call-in by scrutiny.

Legal services were outsourced within a very short timescale – only 4 months after the proposal first appeared on the One Barnet Programme highlight report in December 2011.

Leader of the Barnet Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore said: “The current legal and governance service is clearly not fit for purpose, but it was the Leader of the Council who proposed outsourcing legal services in the first place, who authorised the final detailed agreement with Harrow Council, and who proposed and has presided over the introduction of the council’s new committee system.

“In addition, the Chief Executive needs to answer for the failure to ensure that there was sufficient in-house legally qualified oversight of the outsourced legal service, and the failure to ensure that councillors and the council were provided with correct legal advice.

“In my view both should go, but the buck has to stop with the Leader, so we have called an extraordinary council meeting to debate this issue - it is too important to be left to a single committee and all councillors should have an input into the way forward.”