Tuesday 1 February 2011

All in this together? Barnet's secret expense account

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling in need of a break.

Always feel this way at this time of year: gloomy January rolling into miserable February. Thought I might have a weekend by the sea ... fancy coming along? Just you and me. Anyone? Don't all rush.

I know the perfect place, so romantic ... a lovely spot, on Britain's Palm Beach - yes, apparently there is one - in Poole, on the Sandbanks peninsula, a location with the fourth highest land value in the world ... Nice hotel, with its own direct access to a blue flag beach, and a lovely spa, an oasis of tranquility, a sanctuary for pampering and indulgence, where, we are told, we can immerse our senses in a world of calm and serenity ... oh, and they have wonderful conference facilities too, did you know? Must be wonderful, because last November, Barnet Council spent over £15,000 of our money on a conference here.

Yes, that's right, just days before handing redundancy notices to other members of staff, and even as they were lecturing us on the need to bear the pain of the economic crisis and preparing the worst set of financial cuts this borough has ever seen, the leadership of this council was sanctioning the splurge of thousands of pounds on accommodating unknown guests at a four star hotel by the seaside. £15,000: an amount that would pay for say, the continued support of a care worker for an elderly person, or vital educational psychological support for children with special needs, or a substantial part of a grant maintenance to a local voluntary body.

Inappropriate, in the circumstances, as I am sure you will agree. And, apart from the enormous sums spent on consultants, agencies etc, there appear to be many other peculiar payments listed in the latest batch of Barnet council expenses over £500. I say appear to be, because we just cannot be sure. Despite an oft stated commitment by Lynne Hillan and chums to the principle of 'transparency' in local government, in this batch of expenses someone has taken the decision to withhold the identity of huge numbers of recipients of the payments. These 'sensitive' payments are merely marked 'redacted'.

Do you remember, ladies and gentlemen, the smug satisfaction by the leadership of this council when the Audit Commission was abolished, and how they castigated the spending of the commission on 'staff jollies' and other alleged waste of public money? I can easily understand their delight at the loss of the Audit Commission, of course, and the external scrutiny it was supposed to bring to bear on local authorities, but perhaps the leadership might care to look a little closer at their own spending of public money.

They like conferences, the senior officers of Barnet. Especially in Childrens Services, for some reason. Perhaps there is an explanation for this, and Mrs Angry is always ready to listen to such explanations, should they be proffered. Why, for example, on 5/11, did they spend £4,095 at the Comfort Hotel, Enfield? (Bit of a let down, after Sandbanks, I would say, wouldn't you?)

Oh, and why was £1,500 was spent by Childrens Services, on conference expenses, on the 25/10. Details redacted. Perhaps it was another Spurs visit. Funnily enough, the next two entries are redacted too: two lots of consult fees on the 5/10: one for £10,8000 and another for £5,600. What were they, and why are they withheld? Or look at the entry for 19/10 and the payment by Planning Housing and Regeneration of £11,303.54 for more consult fees. These are large sums of our money, and we are entitled to an explanation, don't you think?

Staff training provides some odd entries too: take the £550 paid on 2/11 to RAF Museum enterprises. Why? Are we training staff to be WW2 aircrew? Team building exercise? One Barnet: all in this together/Dunkirk spirit kind of thing? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Walkley? Don't tell him your name, Mr Reasonable.

Payments to theatre companies continue, of course. We may be depriving our only arts venue of funding, but luvvies need not despair - improvisation and drama will stay on the agenda at NLBP: and not just in the Chief Executive's penthouse suite. Environment and Operations, for example, are still funding the Momo Theatre Co, you'll be pleased to know: £6,000 for consult fees on 5/10. The Stopwatch company got another £4,400 on 18/10. No doubt the issues which these companies are being hired to promote are very worthy, but surely there are more cost effective ways of delivering a message?

Suspicions about the potential disguise of embarrassing payments were first aroused when Mr Reasonable and I, after trawling through the last quarter of declarations, noticed that at least two entries, to the redoubtable Miss Blondy Waka, a hip hop artiste of forthright opinions and eyewateringly frank vocabulary, had been altered late last year, replacing her name with 'redacted'. Why was this alteration sneaked in, we wondered?

Did she continue to deliver her services to Adult Social Services? We just don't know. Was there a 'rude bitch' Blondy Waka Christmas show for the old folks' home, perhaps? Maybe.

Since we highlighted some of the more questionable payments in the previous quarter earlier last month, it would seem this practice has been applied on a much larger scale. In fact an early glance at the entries would suggest that there has been maybe a three times as many redacted payments. We do not know the identity of these recipients or for what services, other than in a very vague description, they are being paid. Why?

Of course there will be a few situations in which it may no be appropriate for an individual's name to be published. I'm not sure what those circumstances could be, when public scrutiny and accountability relies on the openness of such payments, and in any case there should not be so many entries withheld in this way. To do so lays the council open to easy accusations of secrecy for the point of political sensitivity, which would be indefensible, wouldn't it?

There is one entry which might give us some hope of a more positive future, however. In October yet another theatre company, Box Clever, was paid the sum of £4,312.50 for 'other services'. Box Clever provide a number of productions, dealing with such things as 'walking to school' (Mrs Angry is herself an expert on this subject, by the way, having done it for many years, and willing to hold a series of workshops for a similar sum, if you get in touch with her agent). Oh, and the company also offer 'bespoke projects', offering 'unique drama input' into conferences and training - ah: good, conferences with drama ... and in particular, in delivering a programme which teaches 'Engagement With The Community'. Now there's a novel idea.

I'm guessing they haven't signed up for that one yet.

*Updated 12.15 pm: just seen a truly hilarious story in the online local Times newspaper, claiming that, after Mr Reasonable asked why three payments of nearly three hundred thousand pounds to an environmental services company had been redacted, the reason was someone had mistaken the company's name, May Gurney, for the name of someone's daughter. Yes: really - read all about it -



Don't Call Me Dave said...

Mrs Angry

I suggest that you and Mr Reasonable serve a formal notice on the council under s.15 Audit Commission Act 1998 which gives you the right to inspect and copy invoices. If the council continues to redact the details, you can appeal to the External Auditor to receive the unredacted version.

The council would be entitled to redact details which, for example, give the bank account details of the payee, but they are not allowed to redact such information which prevents identification of the nature of the expenditure.

How many more times do councillors have to say that they believe in an open and honest administration before we will actually get one?

Mrs Angry said...

How very interesting, thank you, DCMD. You have won yourself the prize of a weekend in Poole/Comfort Hotel Enfield with a blogger of your choice, for providing the most useful comment of 2011. Don't worry, it's on expenses.

ainelivia said...

"Engagement with the Community", I guess that training seminar has had little or no effect on our Council Members, so far, anyway.

Drat, DCMD won the weekend at Sandbanks, was hoping the hubby and I could get away from London's equivalent of North Korea - The People's Republic of Broken Barnet.

Mrs Angry said...

well, I haven't heard back from DCMD, Ainelivia, so maybe the blogger of his choice was Dan Hope: or that naughty Ms Morris ... if not you are welcome to take you other half on a well deserved weekend: as long as you remember it is a conference, and try not to enjoy yourself ...