At Barnet Council’s full council meeting on 16 July, Councillor Brian Coleman alleged that Barnet’s Conservative members are ‘entirely whipped’ when attending scrutiny and other Council meetings, including those dealing with the highly controversial One Barnet privatisation programme.
According to the Council’s constitution, any whipping arrangements must be declared, but we believe that no such declarations have been made at any of the relevant recent meetings. Such actions would be in breach of the constitution and therefore unlawful.
If Councillor Coleman’s allegations are true, this clearly has very serious implications and casts into doubt the legality of many of the highly significant decisions which have been taken by the current administration, most importantly the decision to grant two massive contracts to Capita and Capita Symonds in the outsourcing of a large number of our local council services.
We therefore call on the Leader of Barnet Council, Councillor Richard Cornelius, to instigate an immediate and independent public inquiry into the claims made by his former colleague, and we also ask that the authority’s external auditors at Grant Thornton should as a matter of public interest hold an urgent inquiry into the allegations. Residents need to know whether decisions have been made legally and whether Tory councillors have acted constitutionally.
As the footage above shows, Brian Coleman made these allegations at Tuesday's full council meeting, to the evident discomfiture of his former Tory colleagues. His statement was of course intended to cause maximum embarrassment to the party which has now disassociated itself from him, after his recent criminal conviction for assault by beating in the street of a female resident, and clearly Coleman relishes the attention he receives by such sensationalist outbursts, whether calculated or not.
Whatever the motivations of the former Tory councillor, these claims, coming as they do from a former Cabinet member and member of the decision making executive of the council, must be addressed, examined and investigated.
If they are true, this will have immensely important legal and political consequences, as such breaches of the constitution would be likely to have been unlawful, and therefore cast doubt on the integrity of the One Barnet process.
If they are not true, then Councillor Coleman should be held to account for his allegations, in whatever way may be appropriate. Clearly it is now up to him to substantiate his claims with evidence, or withdraw them.
Several residents, including Mrs Angry, have already written to the Leader of the Council, the Monitoring Officer, and the external auditor, Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, asking for an investigation into the matter. It would appear that there is a marked lack of enthusiasm for such an undertaking.
The Leader has not responded to Mrs Angry yet, but Maryellen Salter, the new Monitoring Officer, has tried to insist that such complaints would be dealt with through the utterly impotent, and in this case totally inappropriate, member conduct complaint, which has replaced the old standards committee system. Mrs Angry has pointed out that this is inadequate and that the matter requires a full - and independent - inquiry.
Paul Hughes has replied that the matter does not fall under his remit as external auditor, and Mrs Angry has queried this, and asked him again to instigate an inquiry into what is clearly a matter of public interest, an allegation regarding a possible failure in processes that are meant to ensure the financial probity of our local authority.
Perhaps this is a situation which requires the extension of some facility for whistleblowers to provide the information which may be of vital importance to any investigation. Mrs Angry would suggest that councillors of all parties press for this sort of protection is given to any elected member or council officer who might feel it necessary to contribute to any inquiry that may take place.
As noted, Barnet's external auditor last night took the view that this matter is no concern of his, stating Unfortunately, this issue falls outside of my remit as external auditor...
Unfortunately, under Mrs Angry's remit as a citizen journalist, she is unable to agree with Mr Hughes' view of the modest definition and restrictions of his role, and has challenged his response as follows:
Dear Mr Hughes,
I really must ask you once more to reconsider your position on this matter. It really does seem extraordinary that you do not feel that there is reason to be concerned about these allegations, made by a former senior Cabinet member of the current administration of Barnet Council, and which if true would mean that there has been a widespread breach of the Constitution and potentially rendered many of the decisions taken unlawful.
As our external auditor your remit includes the responsibility of ensuring the council has sound and effective arrangements for good governance, and clearly this must include a scrutiny process that is both competent and compliant with the Constitution of the authority.
I refer you to Appendix A in your report to Audit Committe, 24th July 2013, in which you state you confirm the the council's Annual Governance Statement complies with the requirements of 'Delivering good governance in Local Government', the framework published by CIPFA/SOLACE.
The council's own Assurance commentary refers to 'making transparent decisions which are subject to scrutiny and risk management' and defines the purpose of scrutiny as to 'challenge policy development and performance and to be a 'critical friend' to the Executive'. I fail to see how you can continue to support this statement in the light of the recent allegations.
I also do not accept that you can, yet again, refuse to investigate an issue which is evidently a matter of very serious public interest and most certainly obliges you in your role as external auditor to address, on behalf of the best interests of the residents and taxpayers of this borough.