Dear Mr Hughes,
Andrew Dismore has recently written to you in your position as District Auditor for the London Borough of Barnet in order to request that you hold a public interest inquiry into the MetPro scandal, and the wider issue of financial incompetence which the investigation into this affair has uncovered.
Your first response rejected the request on the basis that such an inquiry was unnecessary, would have 'limited impact' and moreover would risk 'undermining public confidence in a public body'. The second response, released today by Mr Dismore, tells us, rather amusingly, that you think a public interest inquiry would be too expensive.
This position is frankly ludicrous: if you were at all worried about avoiding actions that have 'limited' impact, one might be forgiven for wondering how you would define the impact of your own annual audit services for the authority. I would have thought that a reasonable conclusion would be that a company charging £373,000 a year for its services might be expected to be rather more effective, and to have spotted the glaring failures of the procurement, contractual, tendering and payment systems which allowed the MetPro situation to continue for five years, and was found to be indicative of a systemic failure of financial irregularities on a massive scale.
As for the excuse of 'undermining public confidence in a public body', I can only imagine that the use of such a phrase suggests a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour on your part - somewhat surprising, and completely inappropriate in the circumstances. I think you know perfectly well that the reputation of the authority is in tatters, and the only way in which it can begin to restore the loss of confidence in its ability to manage the financial administration of this borough is by acceding to a thorough investigation of the full circumstances of the background to the MetPro affair, including a consideration of why so many failures and persistent breaches of regulations were not identified by an external audit procedure.
As you may know, I write the Broken Barnet blog,as 'Mrs Angry', and was one of the bloggers who worked hard to uncover the MetPro story, and to bring the wider implications of the story into the public domain. You may recall my questions, so determinedly deflected by officers of the authority, at the Audit Report committee meeting of June 16th.
I think perhaps that you are aware that last week the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government paid tribute to the endeavours of the borough's bloggers in this matter, and one might reasonably infer from his remarks that he was not awfully impressed by the official audit process which failed to identify the issues we revealed.
I note that in your latest response to Mr Dismore you reject his repeated demand for an inquiry, dismiss the systemic failures highlighted in Lord Palmer's report as 'weaknesses' and offer the cost to the taxpayer of any further inquiry as a reason not to proceed further with such action.
Interestingly, you explain that the costs are based on a rate (for an 'engagement lead' such as yourself), of a staggering £380 per hour. I can quite see why you might think, therefore, that we might not be able to afford anymore of your services. I would like to remind you, however, Mr Hughes, that the people who did identify the failings that the regular audit process missed, the Barnet bloggers, worked for several weeks on an hourly rate of nothing whatsoever. Perhaps Grant Thornton might like to consider a ex gratia retrospective payment for myself and my colleagues, based on your own generous rate?
I know that many people are deeply worried by the potential conflict of interest that arises from the fact that the district auditor, ie your company, is in a position to decide on the pursual or not of a public interest inquiry into a matter in which your company has itself been involved. I feel that ideally the decision to hold a further inquiry should rest with another body, or at the very least that you should as a point of honour not seek to obstruct the instigation of a further investigation into what is very clearly a matter of public interest.
cc Mr Eric Pickles, MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
NB: residents and fellow bloggers may also wish to write to Mr Paul Hughes: his email address at Grant Thornton is:
PS - Mr Hughes:
If you feel in need of a few tips in how to improve your audit process, may I recommend my article in the Guardian: 'How to be an armchair auditor' http://t.co/WOvoQa8 ... this will explain how to spot another MetPro scandal, in a very cost effective way, successfully meeting the requirements of our own borough's oft stated 'relentless drive for efficiency'.
Mrs Angry x