Saturday 16 April 2011

Looking for Business?

Now here's a funny thing.

Fifteen days late, a 'reply' to Mrs Angry's MetPro FOI request has arrived in her in box. I say reply - of course, in One Barnet fashion, it tells you absolutely nothing at all, and yet everything you really need to know.

If you recall - and do try to keep up - this was actually an FOI request thoughtfully made by Barnet itself, to itself, on my behalf, without asking me, when, in my capacity as 'usual suspect' (see last post) I submitted an awkward question to the last Residents' Forum. This neatly delayed an answer by twenty working days, of course - and rather more, as it turned out.
I had asked:

Can you tell me when the company providing security cover for the Town Hall and other council requirements was first engaged, and by whom? How many other companies tendered for the contract?

Barnet refused to answer these points within the statutory time limit, sometimes not explaining why, sometimes claiming it was still 'collating' the information. In the meanwhile, of course, the information necessary to answer this question was clearly in the public domain anyway, as Mrs Angry noted earlier in the week, thanks to the investigations of herself, other bloggers, and some ladies and gentlemen of the press.

Mrs Angry had already drafted a letter to the Chief Executive, in fact, explaining that she was perhaps unique in the history of the LB Barnet in having answered her own FOI request by her own efforts, and suggesting that Mr Walkley will therefore be happy to pay 'Angry Consultants Plc' the fee for this service: (pro rata, based on the pay scale of consultant deputy CE Andrew Travers, hmm - let's call it a month's worth of investigation, so £250K divided by 12 = well, around £20,000, ok?) Of course we had no contract, tender process nor any DPR for my services, but heigh ho, that's never held anyone back in Broken Barnet, has it? Call it a, what was it - an 'arrangement' ...

And of course Mrs Angry's investigations are rather more thorough than those represented in her answer from the council which merely reads:

The company were first engaged by the council in 2006. After searching the council’s records I confirm we have not located any other information falling within your request.


All those long weeks, to come up with that? We already knew that MetPro was working for Barnet since then, actually, and oh dear, we knew from the DPR published on the 12th April that there was no evidence whatsoever of any contract, any tender process, or indeed any formal basis for what is officially described as an 'arrangement' with this company for security services. The telling point in the DPR is where it states at point 2.1, 'Any relevant previous decisions' - none.

Let's recap then.

Barnet Council, since 2006, has been using a security company without formalising any agreement with a contract, without any tender process, apparently handing over to them annually more than a million pounds of our money, and has never bothered to check whether or not they are licensed as required by law, even though it is a criminal offence to work unlicensed in this sector. This security company claims to have been working with children and vulnerable people, yet we have seen no evidence that Barnet has ensured their employees have been CRB checked.

Barnet Council has carried on using this company even when the company was entering liquidation, and claims not to have noticed the change of company, from MetPro 'Rapid' to 'Emergency'.

Barnet Council allowed this security company to prevent some residents from exercising their lawful rights to attend a council meeting, during which the company ignored the decisions of the the police officer in charge, and most shocking of all, actually took covert filmed footage of residents including me and my fellow bloggers.

Barnet Council refused to answer questions about this matter, and then announced it had obtained this footage, and destroyed it, without informing the targets of the illicit filming.

Barnet council dumped the company only after an embarrassing story appeared in the Ham & High.

Barnet Council deliberately refused to answer FOI requests for information about the issue within the statutory time limits.

Barnet Council has refused calls for an independent public inquiry, stifling an emergency debate on the issue at full council meeting, and buried the matter in an in house audit committee.

What the hell is going on here?

How can a local authority, in this day and age, be casually using the services of such a company in such a sensitive role, without due regard for all the safeguards that are supposed to be applied to the use of outsourced services?

How many other services are being outsourced in this unregulated way?

How did this situation arise in the first place, and why has no officer or councillor queried the lack of contract or monitoring of the service?

How did this company come to be taken on: who recommended them, and who sanctioned years of payments to a company without a contract?

We urgently need the answers to these questions, and we must ensure that the right people are held accountable - that means not that some hapless officer, in Barnet tradition, is made the fall guy and given the sack, but that the line of responsibility is followed - all the way.

There are strict rules about the tendering and choice of contractors for obvious reasons: how else do you protect against the dangers of corrupt practices, and financial mismanagement? What does such laxity say about the future of the many contracted services our easyvirtuecouncil wants to throw in the direction of any old punter who comes along?

We have been worrying, haven't we, lately, about our borough being dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world of Contract City? It seems, however, that our Tory councillors have already, without our consent, taken us on a detour into the seamier side of the corporate night, and made us strut our stuff in the dark alleys of Broken Barnet.

Time to reclaim the streets, I'd say, wouldn't you, citizens?


MickeyN said...

If the quote above is the totality of LBB's response to your FOI query and if we know that here are other documents relating to your query (which there MUST be - surely?) which have not been included, does this reply not constitute a deliberate contravention of the FoI law? Does the Info Commissioner have a view?

Don't Call Me Dave said...

No doubt the ‘investigation’ will reveal that Metpro was appointed by an officer who has now left the council and cannot be questioned. Very sorry and all that, but lessons have been learnt - until the next time when a whole new set of lessons will have to be learned.

baarnett said...

But it is surely an on-going matter, and the buck stops at least once a year.

Recent payments to "MetPro Rapid Response", a company no longer with us, cannot have been made just because older payments to that same company had ALREADY been made.

Are there no annual auditors?

And for instance, if I set up a company, and somehow get a payment from Barnet Council, that doesn't imply I can expect to receive payments on presentation of invoices for ever more.

baarnett said...

Do we know the exact terms of reference of the "investigation"?

Mrs Angry said...

I believe that this should be a matter for the external auditors, and I think they must be involved as soon as possible.

No,we have no details for the remit of the audit committee, and without doubting Monroe Palmer's good intentions, it is obvious that such a body is hardly able to scrutinise this matter on a level equal to the seriousness of the issue.