Friday, 22 June 2012

In all the dark places - an Audit Committee, and I want to go home

"May God stand between you and harm, in all the dark places you must walk."

Ancient Egyptian Proverb

Barnet Audit Committee 21st June

One Christmas, when Mrs Angry's children were small, she took them to the National Theatre to see a rather fabulous production of 'Peter Pan'.

The first half was enthralling, and they enjoyed it very much, but during the latter parts, Miss Angry, who was then about three years old, became rather bored and wriggly, and spent the rest of the play lying on her mother's lap, kicking her legs, and sucking her thumb. With perfect timing, she waited until a moment of classic theatrical silence, a particularly affecting and poignant scene with Wendy and the Lost Boys, took her thumb out of her mouth and wailed plaintively, with increasingly dramatic emphasis:

'I - WANT - TO - GO - HOME ...!'

The accoustics of the Olivier auditorium ensured that the whole audience was able clearly to hear her announcement, and indeed so did all of the cast, who stopped in their tracks. Everyone laughed. Captain Hook bowed, and made an apology from the stage. Mrs Angry went scarlet with embarrassment, and wanted to slide to the floor in shame.

It was a long time before we ventured to the theatre again.

Miss Angry's powers of concentration have not improved much, and really her mother is beginning to have some sympathy. She often thinks about pulling some similar stunt in many of the interminable Barnet committee meetings she frequents.

Dear reader, really you have no idea of the sacrifices your local bloggers make in order to scrutinise the behaviour of the miscreants who sit in the Town Hall on your behalf.

The only thing that makes it all bearable, usually, is the thought of visiting the pub afterwards and exchanging scurrilous gossip with the other bloggers and friends.

Last night's audit meeting was a struggle. Mrs Angry tried arriving late, to minimise the duration of the experience. That helped. She also decided to follow in the tradition of most committee members, and not read the reports beforehand, to try to make it more exciting. Alright, that is a lie, actually, she had forgotten about the meeting until the night before, when reminded by another blogger, and she did not have time to read through the many hundreds of pages.

In fact there was no need, because, as is the case with most Barnet meetings, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Mrs Angry wants to go home. Mr Hughes wants to go home.

Chair Monroe Palmer is a conscientious councillor, and a good man, a rare thing in Broken Barnet, and does his best: an opposition, Libdem member as chair makes a refreshing change in our borough: Palmer, Councillor Lord Palmer, is a former auditor, and knows his stuff. He also has an instinct for when officers are trying to pull the One Barnet wool over his eyes. His weakness, perhaps, or his vulnerability. is that he does not like any criticism of the internal audit process, and in Mrs Angry's view, there is, unfortunately, reason to be critical of both the internal audit process - or at least the limitations placed on the internal audit process, and the same must be said of the external auditors: yes, our friends at Grant Thornton, represented chiefly by Mr Paul Hughes.

Mr Paul Hughes was present last night, looking as usual, very wary, and rather depressed, and prone, as usual, to the performance of some interesting body language, indicating to Mrs Angry a sense of desperation, and desire to be anywhere else but the audit committe of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. And who could blame him? He gave all the signs of a man wanting to engage in a heavy session of pen wobbling, or tie fondling, but too afraid that if he did, Mrs Angry would write at least two paragraphs about it the next day. Well, he was wrong, see? Mrs Angry has waited until Sunday to write her critique, as you will note. And anyway, he resorted to holding on to his chin, with manic determination, and casting sidelong looks at officers as they spun their reports.

Normally Mrs Angry is contained, in audit meetings, by the presence, on either side, of Mr Reasonable, and Mr Mustard. Mr Reasonable usually sits throughout, weeping copiously, and muttering, and Mr Mustard kindly explains the finer points of numeracy to the mathematically challenged Mrs Angry, as if she were a particularly obtuse child in reception class. We all missed you, Mr Reasonable, last night: no sensible questions to the committe. In fact, as far as I am aware, and of course I was slightly late, no questions at all.

Throughout the meeting, Labour councillor Jeff Cooke did his best to raise criticisms, or make observations, directed chiefly at the senior officers. Captain Craig Cooper, the representative of the senior management team, yawned, sucked the end of his pen, or stared into the mid distance, and shrugged off any criticism, as if it were completely irrelevant. Perhaps, in the end, it is.

Let's try to summarise the few interesting revelations from last night.

A year after the infamous MetPro Audit meeting we hear that at last, all managers who ought to have had it several years ago, but did not, have now received training in procurement - marvellous news, and only took twelve months to accomplish! That's the beauty of action plans, of course, here in One Barnet, performed not in real time, but slow motion.

All contracts are now noted in a central repository. I say all contracts, that means all sort of probable 'contracts' are maybe listed together.

Except for the ones that aren't.

The ones that aren't that they are prepared to admit to, we were told, number at least 25, and represent a total value of well, just a mere £9 million of taxpayers' money, so no one is that bothered. There was a moment of genuine astonishment in the room when this sum was revealed, and mouths dropped open. Drop in the ocean, Mrs Angry reckons.

The reason for these remaining non compliant arrangements, we are told, is that 'it is quite difficult to get some suppliers to sign contracts'.

It was politely suggested by the Chair, with commendable self restraint, that it might be possible to cease paying those suppliers that refuse to sign.

It was then implied that all of the remaining non compliant contracts were care arrangements for poor little old ladies in nursing homes, who would be thrown out onto the street in their nighties and bedsocks and all Lord Palmer's fault, if he kept banging on about it.

Captain Cooper assumed a tragic expression and nodded gravely, holding a pair of kittens and a picture of the late Queen mother. A violin played on soulfully in the background. A tear spilled out of Mrs Angry's blogging eye, and slid slowly down her cheek.

Cruel and heartless Lord Palmer nonetheless insisted on having a full listing and valuation of the remaining contracts.

Over in the auditing corner, Mr Paul Hughes of external auditors Grant Thornton tried to stop twitching, gripped his chin again, and stared hard at the floor.

Item 7 on the agenda referred in part to a limited assurance regarding procurement controls.

Mrs Angry cast her mind back to the previous night's Cabinet Resources meeting, where Chair Daniel Thomas had thrown aside all concerns about the ability of an authority whose incompetence in procurement is so well documented to take on the extraordinary challenges of properly negotiating the outsourcing of £1 billion of services to the private sector. He is convinced that any problems uncovered in procurement have been dealt with. A limited assurance is hardly proof of this, is it, Councillor Thomas?

It has been brought to Mrs Angry's attention that at the CRC meeting it was stated that internal and external auditors have assessed the risks of One Barnet, but in fact it would appear they have reviewed only the process, to a limited extent, and not the wider scope of the programme.

Even so, Grant Thornton have expressed concerns not so long ago about the lack of proper planning for the project. Since then, have they taken a more detailed look at the finer details of the competitive dialogue, or any of the really essential elements of the massive outsourcing proposals? Are they able to? Have they been asked to?

We have always assumed that we need to convince our Tory councillors of the error of their ways, and persuade them to suspend the flogging off of our local services.

It has been increasingly clear to Mrs Angry that the real vulnerability of One Barnet is in terms of the risk not just from the point of view of residents, but of the companies bidding for business.

Their interest in Barnet is based on one thing only: the potential profit to be made from the provision of our local services.


Mrs Angry would suggest to the companies sniffing around the delights being proffered by our borough that it might, as you secretly suspect, actually be a rather bad investment of your time and efforts.

Clearly the senior management team of our local authority is incapable of organising their own commercial activity. What else have they cocked up, you might wonder? Do you trust them to have organised the competitive dialogues properly? Are they capable of even tying their own shoelaces without falling flat on their faces when they stand up?

Are you relying on their competence in say, describing the projected costs of the services you will be expected to to provide?

But back to the Audit Committee.

Captain Cooper has taken over the lead of business control in Broken Barnet. Yes: we are all doomed. He promised the Chair that he was going to produce a certain report in regard to his duties - when, asked the Chair? No date had been given. Cap'n Cooper wasn't particularly bothered, but pulled a date out of the hat ... oh ... sometime in December. The way you said that, commented Lord Palmer, did not give me a lot of confidence ... Cooper looked on, unconcerned. The committee, remarked Palmer, will not be happy if this is not completed. Cooper smiled enigmatically.

Labour's Cllr Cooke had some concerns about the data protection risk highlighted in regard to children's data. Cooper dismissed his concerns. An officer now reported to the committee on the process for storing other sensitive customer data. He said it was locked up in a cupboard. Mmm.

On to the Internal Audit Annual Report. This found that despite an apparent improvement in funding and key financial systems, 'it was clear that the overall control environment had not improved significantly so as to change the limited assurance ...' Oh. And why not? It seems we do not know.

Geff Cooke again: what about One Barnet: we have two audits, he said, and no opinion ventured on this issue. Maryellen Salter, head of Internal Audit said, in her rather monotonous drawl, that the One Barnet programme was being well run. Mrs Angry failed to notice something significant at this point, because, in truth, she was having a bit of a 'I want to go home' moment, and had become shamefully distracted by the sight of Ms Salters very high heeled shoes, black patent, with cream toe caps and mint green straps. But apparently the significance missed was, yes, that it is the process of running the implementation of One Barnet rather than any other aspect which has been audited. A proper independent audit, one would imagine, would take a rather broader view of the risks that must be assessed.

Ah: up speaks our rarely seen Deputy CEO and Chief Finance officer, Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers. How's the other job going, Andrew? No, not the the one with Domino's pizza, the one in East Sussex? Marvellous. In this time of austerity, of course, many workers have to hold down more than job, just to make ends meet. Even if you are being paid £1,000 a day for your efforts.

Mr Travers told us something we didn't know. In Broken Barnet, we take audit seriously. Yes, really. You can tell, because apparently we have once a month meetings about it with him and two other statutory officers. That's a good idea, isn't it? Well done.

Erm: now on to 'penetration testing'. In a hump free borough? Surely not. Yes, Mrs Angry sat up. Then it transpired this referred to a really rather staggering discovery. Or at least it would be staggering, were it not in Broken Barnet. A couple of years ago it had been found that Barnet's IT system was not properly secure. Despite the length of time that has ensued since then, and despite the truly awful IT data protection breaches which have occurred also within this period, the system remains vulnerable. As the report says, with an amber light, and Mrs Angry wonders why such a serious failure is not scored red:

"• Little progress has been made to address the
issues identified in the External Penetration
Testing (testing of the externally facing
infrastructure – Internet). Of the 17 issues
identified none have been fully remediated.

• Some progress has been made in addressing
the issues that were identified as part of the
Internal Penetration Testing (testing of
infrastructure within the Barnet IT environment).
Of the 37 issues identified;

• 20 have been resolved and
• 17 remain open (five high and 12
medium severity.)

• In addition, three high severity vulnerabilities
identified during the March 2010 Penetration
Testing were identified again during the
Penetration Tests carried out in March 2011."

From penetration testing to carrots: the Chair asked if more emphasis on better assurance ratings might be acheived by dangling carrots to the various directorates?

Blackhole was waspish in his reply, and then rather foolishly attempted to joke, in a deeply unfunny defence, about never attempting anything during a major football championship.

Summoning up all her psychic powers, Mrs Angry closed her eyes, and willed no one to laugh.

No one laughed.

It's the way you tell'em, Mr Travers.

Laughing all the way to the bank, with our hard earned cash delivered to you, every day, in amounts of £1,000.

Bit of a discussion then, or a mention, anyway, of Barnet's usable and unusable reserves. Tory councillor Graham Old had one or two questions: prefacing these with the explanation - ' I am a very simple soul, on the whole ...'

Mrs Angry ain't arguing with that, Cllr Old.

He thought that there were some 'quite significant differences in the figures.


Mrs Angry ain't arguing with that, either, Cllr Old.

Mrs Angry was feeling more than a bit wriggly by now.

But then she was distracted by the next item and a reference to heritage asset year - no, don't get excited, this is nothing to do with reverence for our culture, history and heritage, this is something to do with looking for any assets which the authority has but might have forgotten about - but of course, in Broken Barnet, this might be something we can flog off to the highest bidder, or closest friend, like the Church Farmhouse Museum, or as Cllr Cooke suggested, yeah, he's right - selling off the family silver. Seems like not much new has been unearthed, though, disappointingly, despite what we were told had been; ' a diligent search, in all the dark places ...'

Yes. In all the dark places.

When it was auditor Paul Hughes turn to speak to the committee, it appeared that he was overcome with shyness. His address was a matter of maybe twenty words. The Chair was rather taken aback, referring wrily to his minimal verbal report, 'loquacious as it was'.

Mrs Angry imagines this is because we have opted in for the minimal service from GT, rather than the super de luxe, tell it like it is, then stand back and watch it all burn down version, as seen with say,... mmm, Assetco ...

Mr Paul Hughes looked back at Lord Palmer with a rather tight smile.

What is the point of an external auditor? We pay them an awful lot of money, don't we? Are they anything, ultimately, more than a rubber stamping exercise? What do you think, Eric Pickles? And who audits the auditors? Is it us, sitting here in our armchairs? If not us, who is looking after the best interests of the residents and tax payers of Broken Barnet?

Mr Paul Hughes, when he does speak, has a charming, homely retro Lancashire accent, which really would better suit say, a bingo caller in Clitheroe, or maybe a shoe shop manager in Lytham St Annes ... no, no ... while Mrs Angry was lying awake last night, as is her habit, in the early hours, worrying about all the awful things there are to worry about in the early hours, for some reason she remembered who exactly he does remind her of and found herself laughing aloud:

When you're cleaning windows, best not to look closely. Not in Broken Barnet, anyway.

Turned out nice again, didn't it, Mr Hughes?

1 comment:

Mr Mustard said...

Mr Hughes will have charged for all of his time preparing for, attending and writing up the metting afterwards Mrs A so all we got was 20 words - who is laughing now then.

Remember what the senior bean counter John Hooton said the night before Mrs A; One Barnet is audited every, what week, no, every month, no, every quarter, no, stop being silly, oh do spit it out Mr Mustard, yes a whole once a year and then only very lightly with a feather duster (he didn't say the bit about the feather duster though)